'American Made': Film Review

Entertaining but familiar.

Tom Cruise and Doug Liman reteam for this dark comedy-thriller about pilot Barry Seal, who worked for both the CIA and the Colombian cartel in the 1980s.

A few decades after Top Gun, career history repeats itself for Tom Cruise with his role as an ace flyboy in American Made. This jaunty, timely but somewhat derivative true-crime comedy-thriller casts the star as a fictionalized version of pilot Barry Seal, a real guy who ran drugs, money and guns between Latin America and the U.S. in the 1980s with backing from the CIA.

Director Doug Liman, reteaming with Cruise in the wake of their commercial and critical success Edge of Tomorrow, applies plenty of stylistic top-spin to the bouncy, chatty screenplay by Gary Spinelli (Stash House), compelling Cruise to raise his game and give his amoral deliveryman a sleazier edge than viewers expect from the usually clean-cut icon. That said, this is yet another hyper-competent, boyishly devil-may-care character that offers the actor, famous for his derring-do on set, a chance to do his own stunts and fly a plane; it’s not a role all that far out of the aging megastar’s wheelhouse.

The real Barry Seal’s story is just significant enough to have warranted the de facto market testing of previous docudrama treatment (see Doublecrossed) and a clutch of crime books. And yet what actually happened isn’t so emblazoned on the national consciousness that anyone is likely to nitpick over the details of this depiction, or even know the dark place where the story is ultimately headed. Like Foxcatcher or American Hustle, the core conceit hits that sweet spot for fact-based, journalism-inspired storytelling by being about flamboyant figures who were part of an even bigger, crazier story. (In this case, it's the Iran-Contra scandal. Arthur L. Liman, the director’s father, was the chief counsel for the Senate investigation in the affair and, per the film’s press notes, questioned Col. Oliver North during the public hearings.) 

Kudos are due to Liman and Spinelli (whose future collaborations include upcoming TV series Impulse and sci-fi film Chaos Walking) for honing the script into a reasonably manageable two-hour romp around the Byzantine conspiracy-caper seen through the eyes of Seal. Wisely, they’ve opted not to get too clever with the chronology, and tell the story straight through with only the occasional narrator’s interjection via a videotaped “confession” or home-movie memory from Seal (recorded circa 1985 on a wonderfully ugly VHS rig).

With voiced-over guidance that recalls Ray Liotta’s interjections in GoodFellas, Seal explains how he got into this crazy mess. Back in the '70s, when you could still smoke in the cockpit and cocktail waitresses would “bang anything in a uniform,” according to a colleague, Seal was a pilot for TWA with a nice little smuggling business on the side, bringing Cuban cigars into the U.S. from Canada and Mexico.

It’s this little criminal chink in his armor of toothy all-American geniality that allows CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, deliciously Mephistophelian) to get a hold of Seal and turn him into an asset for the agency. Schafer sets him up with his own sweet twin-propeller plane and a fake business and soon he’s flying down to Panama to exchange cash for intelligence reports from a certain Col. Noriega on a regular basis.

Wryly suggesting that Seal may be an ace pilot but is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, it transpires that his activities are hardly much of a secret in Central America and that the quickly growing Medellin Cartel know all about his aerial adventures. Smooth kingpin Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and his more volatile associate Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) make Seal an offer he can’t refuse: Collect bales of cocaine from them on a regular basis in exchange for $2K for every kilo (gringo Seal has to ask how much a kilo is in imperial measure) he lands on U.S. soil. The haggling centers not on the price but on how much weight Seal’s plane can carry and still clear the teensy runway they’ve provided at their mountainous, tree-lined headquarters in the Colombian highlands.

Soon business is booming, and editor Andrew Mondshein and his associates have their hands full with montage after montage illustrating giddy success, several set to well-chosen late '70s and early '80s pop tunes. The soundtrack is a feast of such fare, and even features those bottomless nadirs of taste, the instrumental medleys “A Fifth of Beethoven” and “Hooked on Classics.”

As the '80s draw near, pant legs narrow, hairstyles get bigger and archive footage of Jimmy Carter bemoaning America’s spiritual crisis gives way to Reagan warning against evil empires. Seal’s fortunes rise and fall and rise again, ascending to their greatest heights when Schafer saves him from arrest by the DEA and then sets him up in a new establishment in the tiny burgh of Mena, Arkansas. Seal’s wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, quite good at the strong-jawed sassy schtick) is not pleased to be transplanting in the middle of the night with two small children and another on the way from Baton Rouge to this podunk town. The drive down the main street reveals store after boarded-up store, the only sign of law enforcement a tatty trailer occupied by Sheriff Downing and his wife/secretary Judy (Jesse Plemons and Lola Kirke, both rather wasted in roles that may have been beefier in an earlier cut). However, the move does come with 2,000 acres of land, an airport and eventually enough unlaundered cash to fill a luggage store's worth of Samsonite suitcases and duffel bags and 90 lbs. in gold jewelry.

However, Schafer has a master plan in mind, and adds new stopovers onto Seal’s flight plans with deliveries of guns to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua, whom Reagan is supporting in a guerilla war against the democratically elected Sandanista government. A ragtag army of rogues, the Contras are more interested in taking Seal’s money and aviator glasses than the arms he’s carrying, but that’s the job. Before long, it’s all spiraling out of control.

There’s no denying Liman’s brio as he and his collaborators shuffle the shots and cycle through ever more absurd displays of conspicuous consumption and signifiers of '80s folly. But as much fun as all this laughing at the past is, it all starts to feel a bit superficial and vaguely monotonous as Seal gets into scrape after scrape but always escapes with a quick line of patter and a smile. As a character, he lacks depth and flavor. We don’t even get to enjoy his sinking to the bottom of the moral pit given that, despite the fact that he’s smuggling product for the biggest drug cartel in the world, he never does anything naughtier than drink some tequila shots and set off the odd firework. You get the feeling that you’re just supposed to love the guy because he’s played by Tom Cruise.

There’s a sense that perhaps Liman and Spinelli had plans to make something that focused more on the politics and back-channel shenanigans of the time, a story that’s yet to be told in mainstream American cinema. Judging by his work on The Bourne Identity and his more personal project Fair Game, a take on the Valerie Plame scandal, Liman has a particular fascination for the mechanics and realpolitik of modern spycraft. But the confines of a feature film just aren’t roomy enough to do the subject justice without regressing into the kind of star vehicle the industry has come to expect.

Production companies: A Universal Pictures, Cross Creek Pictures presentation in association with Imagine Entertainment of a Brian Grazer production in association with Vendian Entertainment, Quadrant Pictures, Hercules Film Fund
Distributor: Universal

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda, Mauricio Mejía, Caleb Landry Jones, Jesse Plemons, Jayma Mays, Lola Kirke, William Mark McCullough, E. Roger Mitchell, Robert Farrior, Cuyle Carvin
Director: Doug Liman
Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli
Producers: Brian Grazer, Brian Oliver, Doug Davison, Kim Roth, Ray Angelic, Tyler Thompson 
Executive producers: Paris Latsis, Terry Dougas, Brandt Andersen, Eric Greenfeld, Michael Finley, Michael Bassick, Ray Chen   
Director of photography: Cesar Charlone
Production designer: Dan Weil
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editors: Andrew Mondshein
Music: Christophe Beck
Music supervisors: Gabe Hilfer, Julianne Jordan
Casting: Mindy Marin

Rated R, 115 minutes