It’s very rare that Tom Cruise projects actually get his appeal. American Made may very well be the best use of him in ages. Yes, sure, the Mission: Impossible films take great pleasure in beating the ever-living crap out of the seemingly invincible action star, but when have they really ever capitalized on his dopey charm and god status? Doug Liman’s newest does exactly that. By setting the precedent that Cruise is in fact someone capable of usurping the wildest of situations with ease and a hint of smugness, the story of Barry Seal roars onto the screen with the shagginess of a 70s/80s thriller.
Seal (Cruise) was a pilot for covert CIA operations in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s who specialized in everything from taking spy photos in central America to running guns to the Contras before the Iran-Contra conflict. American Made follows his exploits as he works for the CIA and runs drugs for the Medellin cartel (yes, including Pablo Escobar) simultaneously. Seal created a vast empire, and once his work with the CIA became unearthed a deep and much darker political scandal reared its ugly head.
While it’ll be interesting to see the discussion around American Made in relation to glorifying Seal’s exploits—some of the most disgusting ever carried out by the US government—I think there’s something to be said for how director Doug Liman works around it. It’s shown from the get go that Seal is a bit of a dope, someone who really can’t get out of his own way in spite of himself. Give him the tools to break laws under the guise of a secret spy and who the hell knows where he’d run with it. No matter the stakes, Seal has the bargaining power to get out of the situation not by his charm but by his expertise as a pilot. In a time when few could fly over Central America and come back unscathed, Seal always seemed to just ease on by. While the implications of Cruise’s persona laid over someone who was technically a war criminal are iffy at best, Liman and Co. don’t really seem to be taking any political stance on the matter. They’re just kind of interested in seeing how far this guy could rise before crashing.
And believe me, it’s a blast to watch even when it’s incredibly apparent what sections of the narrative Liman takes little-to-no interest in. Seal’s relationship to his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), is summed up in a crucial scene. Seal comes home with a giant bag of money and says to his wife, “Do you trust me?” After all of the shit he’s put her through so far, she responds by saying “No,” but she loves him terribly. I’d match the rise and fall of Seal to that of Karen and Henry Hill in Goodfellas, just without the emotional and physical depth.
American Made is made as a breezy thriller that’ll enter and leave your mind upon exiting the theater. It’s a great story that doesn’t lend itself to further reflection, only really amounting to the ephemeral rush you get from watching Liman rush from point A to point B. It’s a damn good ride, though. While a ton of filmmakers would want their big and epic wide shots to canvas the screen, Liman opts for something shakier and unreliable as its narrator. My favorite scenes emulated the scragginess of those handheld Super 8mm home movies, making Seal’s story that much more fun to watch. While everything seems pretty well-orchestrated in terms of plot, Liman and director of photography César Charlone’s work behind the camera further the gag that this was partially made to spite Cruise’s mega ego. For once, he’s shot and construed as someone without the image of superheroism. This time around he’s just stupidly lucky at every turn. That is, until his luck finally runs out.
This is the Cruise show, even to a fault. The supporting cast kind of get pushed to the side for Seal’s antics to inflate and finally pop. Jesse Plemmons even plays the sheriff of where Seal ran this piloting ring out of and is given three quick scenes to scramble with. Sheriff Downing and his wife, Judy (Lola Kirke), talk about Seal and his influence on the community. The Sheriff concedes that he’s bringing a ton of money into the small community of Mena, Arkansas and whatever he’s doing doesn’t really matter to him. Maybe that’s the filmmakers sounding off on their own thoughts on Seal? I don’t know. The film’s eye is securely focused on the excess of money and drugs to be caught up in such minor quibbles.
While I think American Made is perfectly indicative of why Tom Cruise is a golden god that can carry a movie on his back, it becomes apparent early on that this will be a retread of what you’ve seen before. The music cues, the insert shots of something mentioned tangentially to get the viewer back looking at the screen, the big ol’ come down once things go awry. The architecture is fully exposed, not that it was meant to be fully hidden anyway. But hey, great ride, huh?