The American Dream: Still for Sale? Movie Review Example

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Movie Review

Introduction

If anything seems to connect all films, both modern and older, based on ideas of achieving the “American dream”, it is commercial success.  The films Working Girl, Wall Street, and The Pursuit of Happyness all center on the main character’s desire to seek personal fulfillment in one way or another, but the destination does not vary; for Tess, Bud, and Chris, a single-minded determination to attain high status and financial security dictates almost every choice they make.

This reveals a powerful element of American society, in that no matter the individual reasons and motivations for the efforts, it is still universally believed that real happiness cannot be sustained without economic achievement.   The characters in these films undergo different forms of awareness, and one most definitely discards the importance of gaining money.  That case, however, is based on an extreme of greed and does not lessen the consistent and still present mentality.  Happiness may be based on a variety of things, but the American dream insists that American success is essential for it.

Discussion

Noting how the pursuit of the American dream is changed, or remains much the same, can be best done by examining how film treatments of it have altered.  Obviously, each generation reflects its own attitudes regarding success and personal fulfillment, and these then act as modifiers on the larger theme.  For instance, the 1980s have been identified as an era in which the nation embraced prosperity, if not outright greed, and this is exemplified in Working Girl and Wall Street.  Both movies present one idea in no uncertain terms: to be somebody, the young person must concentrate all their efforts on rising above the working class, and making a place in the higher ranks of business and power.  The films take different approaches to the course and reveal different outcomes, but what is important is that the underlying ambition is never actually questioned.  Also in both films is the chief character’s sense of self completely tied to the ambition, which further validates the enormity of it to the American individual.

For example, Working Girl‘s Tess is after something not actually monetary, but dependent on it.  She sees herself as lower class, and also as unappreciated.  While not as cut-throat in atmosphere as Wall Street, her world defines strict boundaries, and these are marked by class distinctions relating to economic standing and power.  To rise above her station, then, she decides to fabricate a new identity, one reflecting the woman she dreams of becoming.  What is interesting in this is that the fairy-tale motif of the movie never punishes her for the duplicity.  She is merely doing what a smart woman must, and this is even applauded at the end.  More importantly, it echoes the ideology of the time.  Since the American dream is so valuable, a little cheating is all right, and is not a lapse of morality or a sign of poor character.  On the contrary, it is a tribute to the spirit of the times.  Then, and true to a more romanticized representation of a 1980s  American dream, she is rewarded with both success and love.

Wall Street deliberately chooses a darker road, and one out to condemn the hard core of financial ambition itself.  Everything here is more extreme, from the grandiose heights of power in the stock market, to the ethical violations engaged in by Bud.   This version of the American dream is unconcerned with any issues of genuine fulfillment; on the contrary, it focuses only on the hollowness of seeking success for its own sake.   This, then, actually supports the dream itself, by showing how an essentially decent thing may be corrupted and lose meaning.  Bud’s salvation occurs, not because he no longer cares about wealth and power, but because he realizes he has transgressed all ordinary boundaries of decency.   Both films, then, reflect a 1980s adoration of success, even as one seems to dismiss it.  In other words, had Bud been content to more slowly and modestly make his career, it is expected that he would eventually enjoy as “dreamy” a life as Tess.  The only significant difference in the two movies, the obvious thrust of the filmmakers’ aside, is that Tess cheats a little and does well, while Bud destroys his career in cheating too much.  The dream, nonetheless, stays intact.

All of this renders 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness especially interesting.  Filmed long after the collapse of the American boom, this movie seeks to integrate the drastic impetus to succeed of Wall Street with the romanticizing of Working Girl.  On one level, the humanity of Tess’ vulnerability as a young woman is represented in Chris’s need to care for his son.  In both cases, if the dream is to be chased, there is a deeply human factor supporting it.  Then, the hardness of Wall Street is reflected in just how unforgiving the nation has become in regard to success.  More exactly, if overt lying and shabby ethics are no longer in play, it is more a matter of a man – like Tess – resorting to whatever subterfuges he can in order to enter into a better world.  Also as with Tess, Chris does not suffer for the minor deceptions he turns to, save as they require sacrifice from himself.   What both films profoundly emphasize, moreover, is that no other dream is truly worth the effort.  Tess is concerned with her self-esteem and Chris with the care of his son, but the only avenue considered by both is a committed effort to securing a place in the American economic hierarchy.  It is doubtful that a character such as Chris would resort to the schemes of Bud in Wall Street, or even be tempted by what tempts Bud.  Like Tess, he is an inherently moral person throughout.  What unites these two to Bud, however, and what unites the films of the differing eras, is that the American dream remains an unimpeachable ideal.

Conclusion

When assessing the three films blatantly based upon pursuing the American dream, the interesting reality emerges that the dream itself is unchanged.  Issues surrounding it, going to motivations for it, and perceptions regarding its real meaning alter somewhat: Bud is seduced by a hyper-glamorous concentration of economic power, Tess is locked into needing to establish personal identity through it, and Chris’s foremost concern is success as enabling the caring of his son.  The dream stands intact under all of this, for even the disasters striking Bud do not attack the idea of working hard to achieve success; on the contrary, his perversion of the efforts only underscores the truth.  Wall Street, Working Girl, and The Pursuit of Happyness are very different movies from different times, but they still express a single idea.  Happiness and personal fulfillment may be based on many things, but the American dream insists that American success  enables any of them to occur.

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