Oh, the American Dream. In broad strokes, it’s the idea of equal opportunity being provided to every person. In its finer details, the American dream is often interpreted to mean financial prosperity, accompanied by a family and a house surrounded by a white picket fence. People have been chasing this ideal for decades, inspiring both hopeful and critical films to explore this dream in full. Here are ten of the best movies that examine the pursuit of the American Dream.
This 2010 film starring Jesse Eisenberg follows the invention of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg began developing the network while attending college in 2003. Although he’s been praised for becoming one of the youngest billionaires in the world, The Social Network explores the dark side of Facebook’s creation.
The movie shows how desperation to achieve success can backfire. It portrays the two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg in 2009 for allegedly stealing the platform idea from fellow students. We also witness how his co-creator is shoved out of the picture, costing Zuckerberg a longtime friend.
Released in 1941, this film slowly unlocks the past of Charles Foster Kane, played by the film’s director Orson Welles. A reporter is assigned to discover what Kane’s final word—Rosebud—means. In the process, the reporter learns about Kane’s journey from obscurity. Taken from his parents at a young age, Kane eventually becomes one of the most wealthy, powerful, and mysterious men in the country.
The 1950s are often touted as the United States’ golden period. This film, released in 1998 and starring Tobey Maguire, follows a high school student named David. He longs for the simplicity and easy success of the 1950s show Pleasantville—and is subsequently sent into the TV program itself.
At first, David is thrilled to be in the black-and-white world of his dreams. He soon realizes that being stuck in the drab past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This movie provides a great view of how “perfect” stories are rarely all they’re chocked up to be.
Released in 2006 and starring Will Smith and his real-life son Jayden, The Pursuit of Happyness is one of the greatest American films to portray the struggle of a Black father reaching for the American dream. At the beginning of the movie, Chris Gardener and his son are evicted from their apartment and begin living along on the streets.
This film is an inspiring and critical take on a parent’s love and socioeconomic equality in the United States, and has inspired many an essay on American Dream ideals. Chris lands a non-paying internship that could lead to a fantastic life for him and his son, but there are countless problems they must hurdle first.
Tom Hanks stars as Forrest in this 1994 movie. Forrest was born with a physical and intellectual disability—but that doesn’t hold him back. This film shows how hard work can help anyone achieve the American Dream. Forrest samples success in every way (as a soldier, business owner, and runner), but eventually settles for a white-picket fence and his son.
Based on a novel by the same name, the 2013 movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the infamous Jay Gatsby, and Tobey Maguire as his neighbor, Nick Carraway. Jay Gatsby enjoys prosperity—he lives in opulence, surrounded by people who admire him. Although not many know about his past, he rose to fame from an obscure background.
Nick Carraway is not wealthy, but he’s determined to pen the great American novel and achieve success. As the movie unfolds, we learn the Jay’s life is far from perfect, and in the end, his desperate choices wind up costing him more than money.
Adapted from the play by the same name, this film was released in 1961. It stars Sydney Poitier as Walter Lee and Claudia McNeil as his mother, Lena. After Walter’s father passes away, the African-American family is set to receive a $10,000 check. Each family member has a different dream for the money. These conflicting ideas explore how there are different interpretations of the American Dream and how hard it can be for Black citizens to achieve it.
This animated film is timeless and provides a way for children to learn about the American Dream. It was released in 1986 and follows young Fievel Mousekewitz. Fievel and his family are from Russia but must leave their home when it’s destroyed by cats.
They decide to emigrate to America to seek a life of prosperity. Everything goes awry when Fievel is tossed from the boat. He lands in America separately and must rely on new friends, including an Irish mouse, Italian mouse, and a cat. This sweet film shows the possibility for connection inside America’s melting pot.
Although Death of a Salesman isn’t a true story, it parallels real life in an unsettling way. This 1985 film shows salesman Willy Loman, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, struggling to reach the American Dream. He’s spent his whole life trying to find wealth and acclaim, hoping to provide more for his family. This movie explores Loman’s mental instability as he realizes he might never be able to reach the success he’s worked for.
This 1999 movie stars Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a man who has achieved the American dream. He works as a top sales operator and owns a nice home, which he shares with his wife and daughter. However, Burnham isn’t satisfied with what he’s achieved. He ends up pursuing fresh excitement to relieve his feeling of stagnation, but it doesn’t go to plan.
There are countless movies that explore the American Dream and what it really means. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, it’s just an ideal. Success looks different for everyone, and our backgrounds and methods have everything to do with how that success will feel on the other side.