“The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” begins like a personal essay. Co-directed by producer, philanthropist and social activist Abigail Disney and filmmaker Kathleen Hughes (“The Armor of Light”), the documentary is guided by the deeply felt, even passionate narration of Disney, who is the great-niece of Walt Disney and the granddaughter of his brother, and Walt Disney Co. co-founder, Roy Disney.
Abigail Disney has made no secret of her mission to shame the Disney company into treating its workers better, writing op-eds in The Washington Post that make her position clear: The company has gotten rich off the backs of its theme park employees, some of whom, it’s asserted in “Dream,” are living below the poverty level. This film, she admits toward the end, is part and parcel of that quest.
But economic inequality is not solely a Disney problem, as “American Dream” quickly acknowledges. Rather, as the essay tone of the film gradually shifts to that of a case study with society-wide implications, the Disney company is held up as an exemplar: a corporate role model that could lead other businesses to follow if it chose to make concessions to its workers. The filmmakers focus on a handful of struggling Disney employees, including married custodial workers at Disneyland in Anaheim, a city that is described in the film as “ground zero for widening economic inequality in America.”
The filmmakers’ focus-shifting approach to telling this story is smart and effective.
But its true power lies in the history lesson it eventually segues to, landing with a gut punch. Disney and Hughes offer compelling evidence that a long-standing economic social contract has been broken. The first mission statement of the Harvard Business School, the film notes, was to educate leaders who would “make a decent profit decently” – an ideal that “American Dream” argues has been betrayed by the “greed is good” philosophy championed most notably by the economist Milton Friedman (and, of course, in the 1987 movie “Wall Street”). In other words, the once mutually beneficial relationship between business and its workers – a formerly symbiotic relationship that built and nurtured the middle class it has now come to feed on – has been replaced by a parasitic form of capitalism.
One talking head quoted in “Dream” refers to this transformation as the jerk-ification of America (using a more anatomical, and less printable, word than “jerk”). It’s a pungent moment in a pungent – albeit also depressing – film.
Abigail Disney, however, seems only momentarily demoralized. “What am I going to do about it?” she asks – to which her interlocutor reminds her: “Make a movie.”
– – –
Three stars. Unrated. At theaters. Contains brief strong language. 87 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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