The American Dream: An International Perspective Through Movies

With the two new documentaries about the apparent loss of the American dream, perhaps it's time to step back for a global perspective.

We say the grass is always greener on the other side. While people from the U.S. dream of moving to Europe, the American Dream endures amongst those who are not from the land of stars and stripes. The myth that has triggered men and women of all ages and all nationalities to leave their country of origin and go to a place where hard work pays off still persists. However, according to some, the idea of America being the promised land is crumbling.

Noam Chomsky, one of the most prominent and influential intellectuals and activists of our time, addresses this very issue in the new documentary Requiem for the American Dream. He makes plain the principles perpetuating the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few. Hence he explains how we can no longer believe that anyone can be a self-made professional who goes from rags to riches.

In this long-form doc interview—filmed over four years by award-winning filmmakers Peter Hutchison, and Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott—Chomsky unpacks the sources that have brought us to the crossroads of historically unprecedented inequality. He also exposes with searing clarity the forces and policies behind the coordinated campaign to concentrate richness and legislation to the advantage of the one percent.

Requiem for the American Dream provides a clear, accessible explanation of how half-a-century of policies have eviscerated the American worker, vanquished the living wage, collapsed the dream of home ownership, and skyrocketed higher education costs. In the doc, Chomsky recalls how during the Great Depression, which he experienced first-hand, most of his family was unemployed working class. It was bad, much worse subjectively than today, but there was an expectation that things were going to get better.

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Today, the world has lost hopefulness, including inside and outside of America. Those who are not U.S. citizens and want to pursue the American Dream are on guard. They do believe that the land of opportunity will grant them the chance to fulfill their dreams; since in their country of origin the situation may be worse. But ever since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the U.S. housing crisis caused the global fallout, the enthusiasm of the aspiring immigrants and expats is more composed. They look at the United States with vigilant skepticism.

Furthermore, disbelief does not come from Chomsky’s generation alone, who has witnessed the regression. Generation Y is forced to attenuate its high expectations. Nearly half of Millennials believe the American Dream is dead, according to a report from Generation Opportunity. The document shows how nearly 70 percent of the graduating class of 2014 had student loan debt at an average of $30,000 per person. Median earnings for college graduates have only increased six percent from 2007 to 2014. There are more young people today making less than $25,000 a year than there were in the 1990s.

Some may wonder whether it’s best to pursue the dream of self-accomplishment in the Old Continent. Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, is a love letter to all the things Europe does better, from free tuition to humane incarceration. As Moore visits schools, workplaces, hospitals, and prisons, the movie builds into a passionate protest about America’s widening inequality gap, the disappearing middle class and a military-based economy. But it takes rose-tinted glasses to think that the gerontocratic Europe is the ideal substitute for young generations to pursue the American Dream. However, it surely does remain the most charming place to travel or to move to after retirement.

On the other hand, European film directors often glorify the American dream from a foreigner’s eye, such as the Italian Gabriele Muccino did in 2006 with The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith. The biographical drama accounts the story of American entrepreneur, investor, and author Chris Gardner, who struggled for almost one year as homeless while raising his toddler son Christopher, Jr. before establishing his welfare.

If we look further at the filmography that explores the theme of the American Dream through history, there are many exquisite cinematic gems that show how by working hard you’ll become rich, successful, and happy. But just like Noam Chomsky’s discourse, even old movies critique the capitalistic core of the dream. For instance, Orson Welles’ iconic 1941 Citizen Kane serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of achieving great success. The secret at the center of the story (the meaning behind “Rosebud”) provides the film’s central critique of the American Dream. Charles Foster Kane’s simple impoverished childhood, as symbolized by his sled, was the only time he felt happy in his life. This is a happiness that wealth could never replace, despite the promise of the Dream.

In 1969, Easy Rider was one of the earliest films of the New Hollywood era and it became the emblem of counterculture, once again critiquing the American Dream. After scoring a huge sum of money from a Mexican drug deal, two hippies, Wyatt and Billy, make the road trip in the hopes of blissfully living out their lives in Florida. Along the way, they meet George Hanson, brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson, who delivers the message of the film. He states that while America talks constantly about freedom, it is secretly hostile to anyone who is actually free. In other words, everyone wants to achieve the American Dream, but no one wants to see anyone else achieve it.

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Furthermore, the film that represents the utmost critique toward the society that serves the almighty dollar is 1987’s Wall Street, where the phrase proclaimed by Gordon Gekko sums it all up: “Greed is Good.” The movie is about a choice between two competing versions of the American Dream, one which rejects that phrase and one which embraces it. Along these lines, the theme is further explored by Jordan Belfort, the real Gordon Gekko, brilliantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street where the American Dream is at its most visceral and base.

All these films reprehend the United States for being money-oriented, neglecting the more humane side of life. However, America today seems to be incapable of guaranteeing even the financial benefits of “back in the day.” Now, new welfare legislation is almost exclusively geared toward the elite. So the question that rises is: what place presents possibilities for people to earn a prosperous living and succeed in their economic or social objectives? The time when the West used to be the place to move to might be over. Now, it is argued, you should go East.

Many documentaries have depicted the rise of Asia, and it is blatant how the eastern hemisphere of the globe represents the new land of opportunity, not only in economic and demographic trends, but also in politics and culture. No wonder the 21st century is being defined in cinema and media as the Asian Century, as opposed to the American 20th Century and the British 19th Century.

Today the orient is the new land of opportunity. A recent narrative feature, now in theaters, depicts very effectively how East Asia is our century’s Mecca for self-actualization: Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. This 78-minute film is about a woman from Los Angeles, of Chinese descent, who visits Hong Kong for business. She meets a Waspy American expat working in finance who is more acquainted with Chinese culture than she is. The two develop a budding romance while exploring various parts of the city, from Lan Kwai Fong and Central to Chungking Mansions and Temple Street. In the film, the Asian metropolis is a futuristic version of the City That Never Sleeps.

New York in comparison to Hong Kong has acquired an irresistibly vintage allure. Besides, Easternization has spread in popular culture, from the food to fashion, from entertainment to industry. Not to forget that India has always been the largest film industry in the world. Bollywood produces more films than Hollywood, with an annual growth of 12.6 percent, as opposed to 5.6 percent in the City of Angels.

America has achieved many goals through its history and represented an exemplary beacon of hope and growth, but it is now facing a stumbling block. So one may wonder whether its factory of dreams will shut down for good one day. This is not the first crisis that America has faced, and in the past it has always risen from its ashes.

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Not all may be aware but before the bald eagle was selected in 1782 to be on the U.S. Great Seal, a Phoenix was initially suggested to also be included in the symbol. We are all aware that the Phoenix sets herself on fire, dies, and then is reborn – so it might be the destiny of the United States and the Dream it embodies. It must crumble in order to recompose, stronger than ever in a new 21st century.