Can ‘The Great American Lie’ expose America’s empty promises in only 88 minutes?

Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s latest documentary sets out to debunk the American Dream, connecting five narratives to larger political commentary

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(The Great American Lie/Netflix)

Madeline Wester

The American Dream—the idea that upward social and economic mobility is achievable to all—has been a defining pillar in American ideology since the nation’s founding. Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom makes it a personal mission to debunk this long-held belief in her latest documentary, “The Great American Lie.” 

According to Newsom, the film “aims to expose social and economic immobility, viewed through the lens of our gendered values.” But this is a topic that our education has barely scratched the surface of, despite our years in lecture halls and countless AP classes in high school. Can her film really supersede them all?

In the film, the assertion is made that equal opportunity is built on the glorification of white men and the oppression of everyone else. Hundreds of years later, she argues this hierarchy is still present in every facet of American life. Newsom explores this sad reality and its intersections with modern wealth disparities by making the claim that American society glorifies jobs that are perceived to be masculine (read: finance, banking and management) and undervalues those perceived to be feminine, like the healthcare, service and education realms.  . 

These different topics are expanded upon by the personal narratives of five independent individuals: a public school principal, a public interest lawyer, a Midwestern steelworker, a social advocate and a single mother seeking to give back to her community. There are also a handful of cameos that range from social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson to Professor of Law at UCLA Kimberlé Crenshaw to Pulitzer Prize winner Nicolas Kristof. 

Again, the film circles back and attempts to tie all of the above into this idea of gendered job sectors.Frankly, it falls short. 

The concepts Newsom introduces are certainly topical and worth discussing, but, unfortunately, this documentary bit off more than it could chew. The scope was too large, and the analysis too shallow. Her efforts in debunking the American Dream are centered around pillars of generational poverty, wealth disparities, mass incarceration, racially biased policing, unfair minimum wage, gender violence and substance abuse. She obviously has hundreds of opportunities to make her case with historical fact, but in such a short timeframe, she fails to make sufficiently profound arguments. 

I am not remotely suggesting that these ties are not present nor that Newsom’s argument isn’t spot-on, rather I am saying to do so in the sub hour-and-a-half run is an impossible feat for anyone. There was far too much content and far too little plot consummation. 

Overall, this documentary poses some very thought provoking questions and prompted me to think about different aspects that cause the American Dream to fail. For this, I found it worth watching but I wish Newsom didn’t attempt to tackle so much because in doing so, it all seemed to fall flat.”The Great American Lie” promised big scandals and a punchy call-to-action with its title, but if you’re looking for a skim-the-surface history lesson, it’s just enough.