American Made (2017) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda
Director: Doug Liman
Screenplay: Gary Spinelli
Review published October 6, 2017
Bouncing back from his prior fiasco, The Mummy, Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) gets to use his effervescent charm to good effect in American Made, a slick and entertaining production based very, very loosely on the true story of Barry Seal. Seal was an airline pilot working for TWA recruited by the CIA (perhaps only according to this movie), represented in fictional character Monty Schafer (Gleeson, The Revenant), to fly covert missions via jet to Central America to either bring supplies, weapons, or intelligence to various leaders or groups to oppose efforts also taking place to convert these countries to Communism by the Soviet Union. He even gets asked to bring back contras from Nicaragua to train on his property back in Mena, Arkansas. It's a dangerous but highly lucrative proposition, particularly when the drug cartels get a hold of Barry to run cocaine back up to the US. Seal is uneasy about the situation, but the money's too good to turn down, and with the US government threatening him with hard time if he declines, he has very little choice. Stuck between loyalties to several dangerous factions, it's a very treacherous tight-walk to traverse.
Doug Liman (Fair Game, Jumper), who directed Cruise to critical success (though not as lucrative as they'd hoped) with Edge of Tomorrow, directs with an eye for commercial appeal, upping the jukebox of pop songs contemporary of the time, and punching it up with plenty of slickly edited montage to pepper the visual appeal to go along with the rockin' tunes. Liman has a tangential connection to this story, as his father has been chief counsel for the Senate's intestigation into the Iran-Contra affair. Some will likely compare to the works of Martin Scorsese, who spotlighted an amoral figure who did anything for money in The Wolf of Wall Street just a few years before, or perhaps another money-shark film in The Big Short. Despite knowing what Seal is doing is counter to our sense of right and wrong, the story plays it up for the comic adventures aspect in seeing how absurd things can get, all the while name-checking plenty of politicians and public figures to remind us that much of these things really did occur with the blessing, or perhaps the blind eye, of government officials at the time.
An ever-smiling Tom Cruise, who uses his real-life piloting skills to add authenticity, also gets to use his abundant charm in the role that serves the feature well in making it more entertaining than a film about a major drug smuggler has any right to be. As for the historical accuracy, leave your expectations at the door when you walk into the theater. The screenplay makes major changes to Seal's story in order to make him more palatable as a rascally antihero, especially in glossing over his two other failed marriages (Seal is shown here with only one wife that he appears to be very devoted to), as well as how the cocaine problem in the 1980s would become a huge detriment to American society at the time, thanks in some part to Seal's efforts to get it into the country. Cruise also looks nothing like the very overweight real-life Barry Seal, nor does he embody him particularly in his personality, making this seem more like just a Tom Cruise vehicle than a legit effort to make a period piece or traditional biopic.
The film finds much humor in Seal's antics, and generally paints most of its characters as buffoons who have somehow found power beyond their intellect due to their avarice for either money, intel, or to further their political position in the world. Comical turns occur when Seal finds himself raking in so much cash that he neither knows where to put it, nor would much notice if large amounts of it went missing. Or in seeing Seal and his misadventures in trying to outfly the authorities in the skies, or have to evade gunfire directed his way from guerilla fighters or drug cartels down below. One of the funnier and more suspenseful sequences in the film involves Barry having to try to take off from a dirt runway that he believes too short to find elevation before crashing. The cartel that refuses to extend the runway has a special graveyard from others who found that out the hard way.
While a hollow attempt to make a fun movie off of issues that are ripe with insightful meaning and historical/political significance, American Made coasts on the energy provided by its director and the charisma of its star, and for most audiences, that will likely be enough to sate their entertainment expectations. In many ways, the antics can be seen more as a reflection of Tom Cruise at this state of his career than in a faithful recounting of the Barry Seal saga, as Cruise, like Seal in the film, seems much more out to make lots of money and have lots of fun when choosing his projects, perhaps at the detriment to his overall credibility as an actor if he continues down this path.
It could have used a bit more bite in its satire, particularly in showing how the government publicly proclaims that there is a war on drugs to the American people, and all the while they are flooding the streets with product through their rush to political decision making. It's not particularly memorable, and it may be merely passable as a story concept, and yet it is an easy watch, despite the aftertaste of gleefully celebrating a man, a government agency, or a nation that talks about peace-keeping and saying no to drugs on one hand, while the other is doing a lot of dirty work that runs completely counter to everything they claim to value. Possibly the most cynical "just for fun" movie you'll see this year.
©2017 Vince Leo