American Dream is a 1990 documentary made by Barbara Kopple, Cathy Caplan and Thomas Haneke. Barbara Kopple is perhaps best known for her direction of one of the most important films about labor issues in the United States, Harlan County U.S.A. which told the story of a violent miner strike which took place in the mid 1970s. Harlan County U.S.A. is still considered one of the best documentaries ever made, most recently was voted among the 25 best documentaries of all time by Sight and Sound magazine. While not as well known, American Dream, revisits the issue of labor and unions as it explores the story of a six month strike in Austin, Minnesota within the meatpacker industry to great effect.
The strike begins as contract negotiations go sour after a proposal to $2/hour of hour wages, which the local P-9 of the Food and Commercial Workers rejects. Shot over the course of four years, Kopple and her team sought to tell the story of these workers while also reflecting questions and issues plaguing labor organizations across the United States. The film reflects the difficult politics of the mid-1980s, when Reagonomics were getting into full swing and the economic landscape of the United States started swinging further right. The economic and social debate pitting community against capital gains was just beginning to take shape, and the film remains relevant as the issues have only continued to escalate in both intensity and depth.
This particular labor war end up having a fairly profound effect on the identity of labor unions in contemporary America. Amidst in-fighting, scabs and an unwavering corporate stand-still a new contract eventually materializes but at what cost? At the heart of the film is intimate portrait of the struggles facing the working class and the difficult questions they face. American Dream is the tip of the iceberg in the changing landscape of American labor and economics, a powerful and difficult documentary about the changing face of American culture and work.