It’s fun to watch people in movies get stinking rich. I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of this. We sit in the dark to see dreams being projected on the screen, and while we know that it may not be right to long for closets filled with Samsonite luggage brimming with hundred-dollar bills, it’s normal if not downright healthy to dream once in a while.
But it is best not to look too deeply into the “based-on-a-true-story” that forms American Made, Tom Cruise’s Doug Liman-directed paly around a good guy lured into a strange, connected cycle of C.I.A. black ops and international drug smuggling. Not only are all the best bits from American Made movie lacking of the real-life Barry Seal’s Wikipedia page, but anyone wanting a “cool story, bro!” fist-bump after spinning a yarn about the man who personally armed the Medellín Cartel should be seen with some suspicion.
It takes a while to reach the guns, still. American Made movie begins in the late 1970s, in which Tom Cruise’s Seal is a Baton Rouge-based airline pilot too exhausted by the grind to make love to his beautiful wife. (Sarah Wright, 22 years Cruise’s junior, joins as the “we-need-a-new-fridge” hectoring blonde that magically looks the same at the end of American Made movie: eight years and two kids later.) He’s been smuggling Cuban cigars into the United States, and this bit of moxie has caught the attention of the C.I.A. So Seal is given a fake company to run (an airport consultation outfit named I.A.C.), a spy plane, and a mission to zoom around Central America taking photos of Communist guerrilla compounds.
Cruise plays the until now little-known Barry Seal, a crackerjack TWA pilot who is discovered in the late-1970s as the perfect tool — or is that fool? — for a covert CIA operation that ultimately turned him into a key, if unwitting, behind-the-scenes force in the infamous Iran-Contra affair. As I say in my video review (check the link above to watch), as portrayed by Cruise, Seal is either a hustler, opportunist, brave operator, entrepreneur, daredevil pilot, family man or, more likely, all those mentioned above when he is recruited by CIA operative Monty Shaffer (a terrific Domhnall Gleeson) as basically a gun runner flying in AK-47s and kilos of cocaine to the originally fledgling cartels and drug kingpins in Central and South America.
Without knowing of his wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) and young family, Seal gives up his TWA job to start this mission, which soon turns into a highly illegal money-laundering enterprise in which Seal and his small air force of sketchy characters find themselves arming U.S.-backed Nicaraguan freedom fighters versus the Sandinistas. Among those he finds himself in business with is Pablo Escobar and other future drug kings, while getting so many bags of cash for his efforts that he runs out of places to stash them in his hometown of Mena, AR, where he moved the family when he suddenly found himself in a business where he had to go deep underground. This covert operation was executed by the Reagan administration for much of the 80s, even as the president and his first lady launched their “Just Say No” to drugs program while the administration was silently sponsoring Seal’s illegal drug- and gun-running activities.
Seal easily takes to the excitement of the task. His appearance in the area catches attention to local drugpushers (i.e. the nascent Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar) and shortly he’s moonlighting for them as well. Things get complicated, and next thing you realize, our hero—who simply wanted a little more sparks in his life, according to American Made film—turns into a clutch player in President Reagan’s secret arming of the Nicaraguan Contras. Or so the government thinks!!
There are moments in American Made full movie in which Cruise makes use of his movie star skill set in unique ways. For starters, there’s a Louisiana accent that slips in. Then there are moments where it feels like his character, a slick pilot who always delivers, is actually just a dunce who can’t realize he’s in too deep. The movie’s high-strung scenes, like when Seal attempts to take off from a too-short airstrip, reminded me of a very typical, determined Cruise performance: his leaked Scientology video, in which he chuckles to himself and uses terms “L.R.H.” and “K.S.W.” for instance. It may sound a tad off-putting to some, but points, I think, for Cruise trying something a little bit new here—and actually seeming vulnerable.
The script, like other recent uptempo accounts of true events like War Dogs and The Big Short, is edited at a breakneck pace, perhaps in an effort to cover up that there really isn’t too much drama afoot. Slick montages cut to the Allman Brothers Band and George Harrison offer a lot of amusement, and the image of Cruise racing through a suburban development on a child’s bicycle covered in cocaine is a keeper. But compared to something like The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s hard to know what, if anything, this movie is trying to say. The movie completely ignores Seal’s culpability in ruining secret lives in Latin America and elsewhere. Instead of moments of character depth, there’s another “Hey, I know that name!” when Oliver North pops up on the screen.
But American Made movie sure makes zipping around in planes loaded with ill-gotten jewels seem like a lot of fun. There’s a scene where Cruise and Wright have sex in a cockpit, the highlight of which jostles their Medellín Christmas presents; everyone flies in zero gravity for an instant. Clearly, it won’t be long before they crash—but for a moment, the movie is an unbound pleasure. But ultimately this is Cruise’s show, the flip side of his highflying heroics in Top Gun that deliver the best showcase for this movie star’s talents in some occasions.
Think of his great, Oscar-nominated turns in Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia and Jerry Maguire, among other memorable Cruise roles, and add Barry Seal to the list. Cruise often spends too much time in big-budget box office films that let him show off his superstar skills rather than his innate acting talents. This one does both, and though I haven’t heard his named buzzed among Best Actor Oscar candidates yet this year, let me be among the first to throw his hat in that ring. He proves again he is amongst the best out there, and American Made full movie grants him an Oscar-worthy role if ever there was one in an eye-opening, clever and sharp film thinking Americans should be made to experience.