The ‘American Dream’ is a national identity imbued throughout the history of western cinema, a bubbling ambition operating in the background of many of cinema’s greatest protagonists. An ethos named by historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, the writer outlined the American Dream as a desirable goal, noting: “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”, regardless of social background.
Rooted in the Declaration of Independence that proclaims, “All men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the quest for the American Dream is one that often involves obtaining a high-paying job, starting a family and bathing in the frivolities of the west. Such stories have been explored throughout classic cinema and literature, inspiring people to pursue their dreams, in novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Such stories are often complicated, however, with the dream muddied by personal shortcomings or forces outside an individual’s control. The following ten films on this list explore the American Dream in each of its glorious facets, deconstructing its transitional definition depending on time, place and social background.
Top 10 films that deconstruct the ‘American Dream’:
10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 2000)
One of the iconic films of the early 21st century, Sam Mendes’ American classic takes the midlife crisis mould, perfects it, and then breaks it, telling the story of a broken marriage and sexually frustrated suburban husband.
Stripping away the veil of the American dream, American Beauty addresses some deep-rooted concerns that have long-festered in the undergrowth of national identity, particularly concerning homosexuality and body image. It’s a lesson that few people are willing to hear as Mendes deconstructs the ideals of modern society, calling into question the idolisation of the sheer concept of success whilst highlighting the futility of commercialism.
9. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider is a hippie romp chronicling an modern American odyssey, perpetuated by drugs and the ideals of a bubbling subculture.
The American Dream morphs into a sick and twisted nightmare of violence and nauseating hedonism as Wyatt and Billy set out on a long journey to get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. The roaring motorbikes of the two lead characters become metaphors for the country which is fuelled by retroactive violence and drug money, particularly at the climax of the film where Wyatt’s bike, with the American flag painted on it, blows up. Intolerance murders America and leaves its corpse by the highway.
8. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
The blinding illusion of the American Dream is violently smashed to pieces in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho following Patrick Bateman, an egotistical psychopath with hedonistic fantasies.
Exploring the mind of an American psychopath, Bateman is an obsessive maniac with a passion only for personal perfection and financial gain. So narcissistic is his inner turmoil that he begins taking out his insecurities on those around him in violent acts of murder. Now an iconic scene of contemporary cinema, the moment where Bateman and his colleagues compare business cards is perhaps the greatest illustration of the protagonist’s own vapid life, amplifying the consumerist idea of success that runs through the spine of Mary Harron’s film.
7. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2021)
American Dreams are often just that, a fantasy by which an individual believes their life should be lived, and in Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Nomadland, this dream is called into question in the backdrop of the disastrous 2008 economic crash.
Zhao tracks the nomadic movements of Fern, a woman in her 60s who has lost everything in the Great Recession, embarking on a journey through the American West in search of meaning. A painting of both the landscape of contemporary periphery America and a portrait of those that inhabit its space, Nomadland is crafted with a gentle passionate lyricism, bypassing the futility of the American dream to access the very heart of the American soul.
6. Bonnie & Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
The pursuit of the American dream is embodied in an actual cat and mouse chase across the nation in Arthur Penn’s influential road movie Bonnie & Clyde.
Based on the story of the real-life outlaws, Penn’s film follows the two lovers as they engage in a violent spree across the country, stealing cars and robbing banks. Just as the death of Bonnie and Clyde turned them into martyrs, Arthur Penn’s vision crystallises their image as two attractive lovers who decide to carve out their own American dream by rejecting the failing economic systems during the Great Depression. In a period where the land of liberty was littered with property foreclosures, and helpless people were driven from their own lands by banks, it is no surprise that Bonnie and Clyde became cultural icons.
5. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
The American Dream is myth and fantasy in Wim Wender’s iconic Paris, Texas and film that suffuses classic European storytelling with a pertinent tale of loneliness and regret on the outskirts of the American west.
The tale follows a man named Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) who is drifting aimlessly around life when he is discovered in the middle of the desert, now he must reconnect with society, his family and his old life. Whilst the concept of the American Dream may be an optimistic and ambitious one, Paris, Texas analyses a fractured version of such a dream, showing an individual mourning the loss of his missed opportunity.
4. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Often recalled as the greatest film of all time, Orsen Welles 1941 masterpiece following a publishing tycoon and his troubled past is a wealthy illustration of the American Dream in all its glory and shortcomings.
A newspaper magnate who bought the world but failed to save himself is now known as one of the most memorable indictments of the mythological American Dream. Presenting a deeply flawed lead character, it is Kane’s own destructive narcissism, fueled by the allure of the national dream that leads to his lonely demise. In this undisputed classic Welles launches an attack on American values questioning the morals of a country constantly striving for success.
3. There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
As one of the finest filmmakers of contemporary cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson made history with There Will be Blood, a monolithic piece of American art that perfectly fuses each part of its complex makeup.
The film follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a maniacal businessman and powerful figure obsessed with family, religious hatred and greed who helps herald in American capitalism as an oil prospector at the turn of the new century. Whilst his career slowly descends into chaos, the life of a local preacher sees success, and in the film’s climax, these two personalities clash in a chaotic brawl of desperate cowardly greed. Illustrating the desperate urge to attain the American dream in spite of the loss of morality, Paul Thomas Anderson draws up a truly compelling piece of cinema.
2. The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)
If the American Dream, in all its glory of suburban wealth, career success and familial fulfilment were to physically exist, Ned, of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, would be its fallen angel.
A man dedicated to “swimming home” across the swimming pools of his neighbourhood, Ned has all the swagger, sophistication and bronzed skin of an idealistic devotee of Uncle Sam. While he may appear to possess traits of success, it’s clear that this is a case of sheer disillusion. Pretending to swim through an emptied swimming pool with a young companion, he says: “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you”.
The golden colour palette and ethereal cinematography become a hallucinatory peephole through the eyes of Ned. Seeing his past and present through a physical nostalgia, bottled up and viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Striving for identity and life long-lost, he is treading water within an empty pool, under dark grey skies. Living out an American dream that will forever remain as such.
1. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Announced as the “best film of the decade” by director Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher’s Social Network is certainly one of the most influential films of the 21st century, telling the story of an invention so overwhelmingly significant it almost defies hyperbole.
The invention of social media is one of the most culturally significant moments in all of modern history, changing the way we communicate, interact with our own subconscious and express our own thoughts and feelings. David Fincher’s masterpiece details the life of the Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg, who created the social networking site that would later be known as Facebook.
Sacrificing friends, family and close relationships for the sheer pursuit of narcissistic economic gain, the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, both in reality and in David Fincher’s film is one of the greatest or the most tragic illustrations of the American dream. It depends on how you perceive the concept.