It’s no coincidence that my favorite Tom Cruise performances are those in which he plays a character who doesn’t jump out as the obvious hero. Look at what he pulls off in films like Magnolia or Tropic Thunder, both of which feature Cruise in supporting roles, making these parts unique for this perpetual good guy. Even when Cruise plays an absolute shit, there’s still something about him that draws you to him, makes you want to see him keep going. American Made gives us that rare opportunity to see him take on the role of a type of criminal while still making us root for his success.
Bringing Cruise back together with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Go), American Made tells the true-life story of Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot circa the Carter and (first-term) Reagan administrations recruited by the CIA (represented by an agent named Schafer, played by Domhnall Gleeson) to run intelligence-gathering missions over various Latin American nations where communist infiltrations have occurred. His photos are so good that the agency ups his responsibility to include such things as gun running to American-friendly forces, and before long Seal is wrapped up in everything from bringing drugs into America from the Colombian drug cartels to shipping human cargo in the form of Contras soldiers to his new home in Arkansas for military training.
It’s impossible to watch Cruise in the cockpit of these fairly slick cargo planes without thinking of Seal’s story as that of Maverick (from Top Gun) gone wrong. He’s even got the cool aviator shades to show for it. But the movie is also something of an alternative history of the United States, the type that only gets written about after Congressional investigations are completed and men like Oliver North (who enters Seal’s life late in the film) are called out for allowing drug trafficking in the Nancy Reagan “just-say-no” era.
Seal wasn’t just a capable pilot; he was a consummate hustler who used his Southern charm to win over some of the most dangerous people on the planet. One of the individuals he never stopped hustling was his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who allowed Barry to drag them from their Louisiana home in the middle of the night to avoid local authorities and relocate to Arkansas only because it meant they’d be pulling in more cash than they knew what to do with. American Made also features some quaint supporting parts by the likes of Jesse Plemons as the local sheriff, and Lola Kirke as his wife.
Walking shriveled blister Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) plays Lucy’s trouble-making brother JB, whom Barry is forced to take on as a low-level employee, who finds ways to jeopardize the entire operation. As a result of JB’s actions, we get to see what Barry is like scared and panicking, both traits Cruise rarely shows us on film. The script from Gary Spinelli moves us through events rather quickly, and Liman’s slicker-than-usual direction whips us through the countless twists and turns of Barry’s life that would seem overwritten and false if they hadn’t actually happened. For reasons that are revealed in the end but still feel forced, Liman uses a framing device of Seal making videotaped confessionals of each of the phases of his wacky life that serve as unnecessary narration.
The look and feel of American Made seems only slightly heightened in terms of the costumes, hairstyles (including some sweet facial hair) and kitschy production design, all of which make the film an entertaining visual experience. The complicated story is actually fairly easy to follow even if the some of the details get lost or muddled. In the end, it’s more of a highlights reel than a complete story, especially when you factor in the cameo appearances of such notable, scandalous figures as the aforementioned North, Pablo Escobar, Manuel Noriega (all played by actors), and the Reagans (played by themselves in archival footage; it’s nice to see them still getting work).
American Made is riddled with flaws in both its storytelling and some of the performances, but that doesn’t stop Cruise from smoothing over a lot of the rougher edges and bringing it together with a rip-roaring performance that includes a vital sequence of Barry, covered in cocaine, riding down the street on a kid’s bike. You either get why that is so necessary or you don’t. This is an easy one to have fun with even if you go crosseyed attempting to keep up with the insanity.