These words conclude the novel and find Nick returning to the theme of the significance of the past to dreams of the future, here represented by the green light. He focuses on the struggle of human beings to achieve their goals by both transcending and re-creating the past. Yet humans prove themselves unable to move beyond the past: in the metaphoric language used here, the current draws them backward as they row forward toward the green light. This past functions as the source of their ideas about the future (epitomized by Gatsby’s desire to re-create 1917 in his affair with Daisy) and they cannot escape it as they continue to struggle to transform their dreams into reality. While they never lose their optimism (“tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . .”), they expend all of their energy in pursuit of a goal that moves ever farther away. This apt metaphor characterizes both Gatsby’s struggle and the American dream itself. Nick’s words register neither blind approval nor cynical disillusionment but rather the respectful melancholy that he ultimately brings to his study of Gatsby’s life.
The crucial moments of drama, however, are often drably handled, and when Gatsby and Tom finally have it out over Daisy’s future in a sweltering Manhattan hotel suite, you can’t help but wish that one of them had snuck in a glitter cannon. Luhrmann last worked with DiCaprio on his 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and the ending of that film felt so immediate that you prayed for Romeo to drop his vial of poison, or for Claire Danes’s Juliet to wake a minute sooner. Here, plot is something that happens when there’s nothing better to do.