Recently, knotmove.com presented with an editorial project opportunity dealing with the topic of the “American Dream.” The suggested angles pertained to how the American Dream presently relates in the many real-life sections (Home, Job, Finance, Parenting, Education, etc.) that knotmove.com reports on. When I heard the topic, I immediately thought about the many movies that embody the spirit of the American Dream. It was an angle in the entertainment realm of knotmove.com that I thought wasn’t touched on, so I took it upon myself to gather a few angles myself. From the immigrants of Coming to America to the self-made man of Citizen Kane, you’ll see that more movies than you think end up embodying the American Dream. So many, in fact, that I had to break this editorial into sections. Enjoy!
PART 3: THE AMERICAN DREAM FROM RISING POWER— On the first two parts of this editorial series, I talked about the “self-made man” and achieving the American Dream through financial success. You would hope that, in most cases, those two paths to the American Dream are honorable and noble in nature. However, we all know that’s not always true. Plenty of people (and plenty of movies show it) achieve the American Dream of being self-made or financially successful purely by way of achieving power and dominating those around them. By taking that route, the power corrupts and becomes their only goal to achieve. The American Dream gets lost along the way. If you want to call this the “crime” category to this editorial series, that’s fine, but it’s more about the quest for power and success done in less-than-noble way. Since the general public loves their happy endings, more often that not, the movies that show these rises to power are often accompanied by tragic falls from grace and karma-laden comeuppance. Here are some movie examples of rising power:
The Godfather trilogy— Come on. You know this would be the top example. If you didn’t, you don’t know your movies. Though it has its roots in Sicily, The Godfather trilogy is a transcendent American power story that fits this dark route to the American Dream perfectly. As a school teacher would say, the Corleone family “doesn’t make nice choices,” yet the roundabout way the community depends on them is what is really fascinating. (trailer)
Goodfellas (1990)— “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being the President of the United States.” I sometimes get in the argument that Goodfellas is just as good, if not better, than The Godfather. To me, Martin Scorsese does in one movie what Francis Ford Coppola took two movies and a poorly-timed third to tell. While Al Pacino and Marlon Brando are clearly better than Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro, you can’t deny the full scope of Henry Hill’s street-kid-to-made-man story. No sidebar Sicilian story needed here. An American story through and through, it’s a close second, but not far from the top. (trailer)
Scarface (1983)— Wow. Somehow this is third. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana said it best: “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then, when you get the money, you get the power. Then, when you get the power, you get the women.” That hierarchy right there lets you know he’s not in this for the right reasons, yet it’s his absolute drive in life in 1980s Miami. (trailer)
Carlito’s Way (1993)-– Ten years later, Al Pacino played the opposite kind of power. His Carlito Brigante is a guy with a Scarface-level past who’s trying to go legit and live a better life on the right side of the law, only to have his past dealings and reputation come back on him. (trailer)
American Gangster (2007)— Emerging out of the 1970s streets of Harlem and Manhattan, through violence and drug smuggling, Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas is completely in it for the power and respect, especially as a person of color. In his mind, everything Frank does is right and destined. I love how Denzel Washington makes every editorial I ever write. (trailer)
Gangs of New York (2002)— Before we leave the Big Apple that encompasses four of the first five movies of this category, Martin Scorsese takes you back to 1860s New York on the heels of the 1863 draft riots and the beginnings of mob-based crime and corruption in the violent Five Points neighborhood, where the “natives” are trying to oppress the incoming flood of immigrants. (trailer)
Casino (1995)— Now, we take the American Dream through rising power out of New York to shiny old-school Las Vegas where the levels of greed and wealth to achieve power were as huge as the casinos themselves. (trailer)
Training Day (2001)— In a rare cop movie that makes this category, the corrupt methods by which crooked rogue detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) abuses the power of his badge to control the streets his way is a great fit into this category. (trailer)
Fight Club (1999)— Here’s the big finish. Those of you who’ve seen it know that there’s a lot going on in Fight Club. David Fincher’s brilliant movie questions the modern American quest for financial success and status, reminds us that we are still animals fighting to survive and ascend, advertises the need for mayhem and anarchy, and essentially blames the American Dream for all of it. Fascinating stuff! (trailer)
PART 4: AMERICAN CREATED BY IMMIGRANTS AND PIONEERS— Those of us who payed attention in Social Studies class know that the United States of America was founded and formed by immigrants coming to this continent seeking political and religious freedom. That freedom expanded “from sea to shining sea” through the migration and pioneers of Manifest Destiny in the three centuries that followed the colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth. Because of that, we’ve been called a “melting pot” and “salad bowl” of mixed cultures and ideals. Such democratic blending is true and quintessentially American to the core. People from around the world have come to this country for a plethora of reasons. Whether it’s owning land, making money, or having a better life for one’s family, all of those motivations have become part of the American Dream. You can definitely make the argument that many of the aforementioned movies from the “rising power” category (Scarface, Gangs of New York, and The Godfather Part II) fit the bill as immigrant stories as well. For this category, I left it to the less-than-completely-corrupt immigrant and pioneer stories.
An American Tail (1986) and An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)— Leave it to a non-Disney animated eastern European mouse to tell one of Hollywood’s best immigrant stories. Laugh all you want, but it’s pretty good at showing the dream of getting to America. Besides, didn’t you hear? “There are no cats in America and the streets are filled with cheese!” (trailer) That and it gave us a duet song so good that Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert sang it to each other 25 years later.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)— If Fievel wasn’t ridiculous enought, how about My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Laugh all you want again, but this too is an excellent immigrant story about trying to marry into American and whether or not one wants to embrace their ethic and immigrant heritage. It fits here! (trailer)
Far and Away (1992)— Yeah, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have better career highlights and acting performances than this Ron Howard epic, but, the movie is a very good immigrant story of Irish immigrants. The Oklahoma land rush scene in the finale is worth watching all by itself. (trailer)
Avalon (1990)— Two years earlier, Polish-Jewish immigrants got the epic treatment in this little-seen drama from Rain Man director Barry Levinson and really showcases America as the “promised land” for a different generation. (trailer)
Coming to America (1988)— This hilarious Eddie Murphy comedy is perfect for this category. Between a African prince searching for a queen in Queens and the small-scale American Dream of a barber shop or a fast-foot restaurant, few are better. (trailer)
Of Mice and Men (1992)— After the immigrants, we get to the domestic stories of pioneers and Manifest Destiny. Leading it off, John Steinbeck’s classic novel of Depression-era California and a pair of men trying to fulfill their dreams works well here. (trailer)
A Walk in the Clouds (1995)— Three years later, Hollywood returned to that rural California setting. This time it’s after World War II and we follow a mildly-lost Keanu Reeves immersing himself with an Old World immigrant grape vineyard family. (trailer)
The Joy Luck Club (1993)— While most immigrants to America were from Europe and crossed the Atlantic, many people forget about large swell of Asian immigrants that came across the Pacific to the western coast of the United States. Wayne Wang’s captivating film showcases Chinese-American daughters trying to follow in the footsteps of their Chinese mothers in a different land. (small scene)
Dances With Wolves (1991)— Kevin Costner’s Best Picture winner is the best Hollywood movie to show both the evils that matched the dreams of Manifest Destiny and also a different interpretation of the American Dream, that of the Native Americans themselves who’ve been pushed out by us entitled immigrants. (trailer)
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)— Taking place over a century before Dances With Wolves‘s post-Civil War setting, director Michael Mann takes you to the French and Indian War where, even then, the Native Americans of the time period begin to understand the scope and implications of the increasingly numerous and powerful European empires claiming North America. (trailer)
The Patriot (2000)— In an excellent segue from the French and Indian War (now I feel like a pro), we have a former French and Indian War veteran (Mel Gibson) learning to believe in the cause of fighting for independence during the Revolutionary War. For as much as this is Mel’s movie, it’s the late Heath Ledger’s story as his true-cause-believing son that is far more poignant when it comes to the American Dream. (trailer)
The Right Stuff (1983)— My last submission for this immigrant and pioneer category of movies that epitomize the American Dream takes Manifest Destiny beyond the boundaries of the planet. Philip Kaufman’s opus based on Tom Wolfe’s book shows how patriotically important and vainly macho the Mercury program’s space race against the Soviets was in defining America’s place in the post-WWII world. (trailer)
NEXT PART: The American Dream through politics and leadership.
Many or all of these movies are available for rental on DVD or Blu-ray at your local Family Video stores in the Westmont area and are also available for sale to own at local department (Target, etc.) and electronics store (Best Buy, Frys, etc.).