I‘m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free. 

Our country lives and dies by this line—politically, socially, and morally. If there’s one quality that seems to embody the American spirit, it’s freedom. That freedom is often symbolized, at least intrinsically anyway, in what we call the “American Dream,” the belief that everyone within our nation’s borders has an equal chance to make something of his or her life, to achieve personal success in whatever form desired—whether wealth, riches, power, fame, or something else.

While the exaltation of the individual can lead to the attainment of personal aspirations and achievements, if we’re not careful, it can also lead to the exploitation of other individuals.

This idea of freedom is certainly no stranger to the movie industry, but perhaps more so in recent years filmmakers are wrestling with what exactly it means to achieve success in the current context of American culture. And to be honest, their examination is fairly bleak.

Many of these narratives suggest that the American Dream, if taken to its logical extreme, can come to represent an illusory vision of freedom rather than true freedom itself. Though there are a handful of recent films that illustrate this point (The Immigrant, Selma, and Snowpiercer come to mind), I’ll speak specifically to three, beginning with Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.

At first glance, Nightcrawler looks to be a sharp critique of the 24-hour news cycle (in the vein of Sidney Lumet’s Network). Gilroy’s film is best understood, however, as an unflinching, extreme caricature of the American Dream, all wrapped up in its central character, Louis Bloom.

Bloom (played with relentless intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal) is an entrepreneur that only the United States of America could conceive. The audience doesn’t learn much about Bloom’s back story, but he does own a computer and lives in a small apartment. All one needs to start a small business.

After meeting a freelance crime journalist, Bloom buys a consumer video camera and begins systematically searching for work. While the city sleeps, Bloom haunts the streets of L.A., filming (and profiting from) the bad fortune of others. Car accidents, home burglaries, and murder: nothing is off limits for Bloom’s intruding lens. Bloom will do anything to build his fledgling business “Video Production News, a professional news-gathering service.” Much like his bulging eyes, Bloom’s pursuit of success never blinks. He sees every person as either an obstacle or a stepping stone to his dream. “A friend is a gift you give yourself,” he remarks at one point.

From manipulating business contacts to sabotaging his competition, Bloom is a caricature of personal manifest destiny run amok. Yet, while Bloom is certainly a villain of sorts, the audience can’t dismiss him entirely. The truly disturbing nature of the story is that we can see a bit of Louis Bloom inside each of us as well.

In a time when business books about influence and leadership psychology are topping the bestsellers chart, the line between leadership and manipulation isn’t easy to distinguish. The question can be raised, “At what point are we valuing the talents of others or simply using them to get to the top?” For Louis, freedom means doing whatever it takes to be successful, even if it impinges on the rights of those around him (camera in hand or not).

While Nightcrawler merely wades into the nature of modern day journalistic consumption, David Fincher’s Gone Girl (another critically lauded film from last year) jumps in headfirst. Gone Girl is about a marriage, but it isn’t about marriage. Nick and Amy (played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) meet in near storybook fashion. They’re both writers, in New York of all places, and their professional, upscale personas make them perfect for each other.

America’s recession casts a shadow over their relationship when Nick is laid off. Soon, the couple moves to Missouri, quietly tumbling from “elite” status to midwestern bar owners. After Amy goes missing under mysterious circumstances, Nick becomes the focus of intense media scrutiny. Every move, word, and smile Nick makes is analyzed by the nation.

There’s a shot in the middle of Gone Girl that seems to encapsulate Fincher’s big idea. Reporters and journalists have surrounded Nick’s yard. Photographers, looking to get a shot of the might-be-guilty husband, send an array of camera flashes into the house. Fincher turns the camera to the family cat, its gray and white fur light up with each flair of the camera bulb.

In Gone Girl, Fincher presents an all too familiar American culture that tends to care less about facts, and more about shock-jock titles and “gotcha” entertainment. From images of television satellite dishes to characters who are nearly always seen with a coffee cup or drink in their hand, Gone Girl is intertwined with the theme of consumption. The film revels in the self-proclaimed freedom, comfort, and happiness one receives at the expense of others. By the time the credits roll, the choice between a piece of the American pie and clear moral standards is no longer hypothetical.

These themes also intersect with Bennett Miller’s real life drama Foxcatcher. In Foxcatcher, Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a famous wrestler who’s also the brother of a famous wrestler (played by Mark Ruffalo). Depressed and broke, Mark thinks he’s received the deal of a lifetime when multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) offers to sponsor his quest for 1988 Olympic gold.

When John first meets Mark, du Pont laments at how the United States didn’t take care of the wrestler—Mark won a gold in the previous Olympics, but only has a rundown apartment to show for it. Even Russia provides for their athletes better than America, Du Pont says. He wants to give Mark the honor he deserves. But as the story unfolds, Du Pont’s words carry little weight. John’s relationship with Mark isn’t chalked up to duty or honor as much as it is about solidifying Du Pont’s place in history.

Miller (who also directed Capote and Moneyball) doesn’t shy away from pointing the finger at America—it’s almost a little too on the nose at times (pun intended). Du Pont, whose family fortune was built on the backs of violence and war, goes by the nickname “Eagle.” There’s talk of making America “great again.” Patriotic symbols and flags don the Foxcatcher estate. Du Pont is the fully realized yet corrupted version of the American Dream.

But as dim as the story is, there is a light in Foxcatcher, an answer to this devil’s backbone of the American Dream. While Nightcrawler and Gone Girl merely poke at the problem, Miller’s film provides insight into how our country might redeem its beliefs about personal success and freedom.

The answer is found in Schultz’s brother, David. While David also pursues financial stability and athletic excellence, his end game isn’t necessarily fame or money. He finds fulfillment in his relationships, namely with his brother, wife, and children. If every interaction is measured by net worth (as Carell’s Du Pont and Gyllenhaal’s Bloom suggest), David always comes out in the red. He is the anti-du Pont. This is why the events of Foxcatcher are ultimately so shocking; the selflessness of David’s character further reinforces the tragedy of the story.

Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, and Foxcatcher all have something to say about life in contemporary America. While our country prides itself on individual freedom—“At least I know I’m free”—this individual freedom becomes counterproductive when we use it to impinge upon the freedom of others. While the exaltation of the individual can lead to the attainment of personal aspirations and achievements, if we’re not careful, it can also lead to the exploitation of other individuals.

This is an especially relevant topic today, given the current debates surrounding health care, immigration, and workplace reform. These issues, and others like them, seem to deal exclusively with our nation’s definition of freedom. In all of these decisions, the good of the individual must be reconciled with the good of the whole. While answers to complex social structures do not come easily, challenging and provoking our idea of the American Dream is key to making positive headway in these conversations.

We have the opportunity to create an environment of pure, true freedom when we willingly choose to limit our personal dreams and desires for the sake of others. This isn’t something the government can necessarily do for us permanently, for any government system can be corrupted. It must also be born within our own hearts (as Foxcatcher emphasizes with David Schultz). Daily we must internally wrestle with the exploitation portrayed in Nightcrawler, the consumerism of Gone Girl, and the selfish ambition epitomized in Foxcatcher. Will we grip the American Dream at the expense of love and grace? Or will we collectively look to empower others with our personal freedom?

For Christians, these themes shouldn’t come as a surprise. The gospels teach us that a lifestyle of service doesn’t necessarily squash personal desires, but it does refashion them. It defines the power of a life not in money, fame, or perception, but in the decision to set aside our “freedom” and “dreams” for a heavy cross.

I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.

The true measure of societal freedom, then, is not in what it can give us, but in what we can give it.


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