We’ve seen ‘true story’ movies based on turbulent times in political history. We’ve seen Tom Cruise action movies. We’ve seen biographical crime movies. We’ve seen Tom Cruise flying planes. We’ve seen Tom Cruise’s toothy grin stretch its way across plenty of comedy/thriller combinations. So why see “American Made”?
Despite its familiarity and the ever-present Cruise, “American Made” shapes a unique personality for itself. Director Doug Liman, in his endless effort to top his best film “The Bourne Identity”, has resorted to sending Tom Cruise on eclectic missions. His last film “Edge of Tomorrow” was an outstanding slice of sci-fi, but this time he’s working from a grounded screenplay penned by burgeoning screenwriter, Gary Spinelli.
“American Made” is the true story of Barry Seal, a pilot who built a lucrative empire on simultaneously working for the CIA and the Medellin Cartel — allegedly. Not really. The movie takes liberal advantage of artistic liberty: there’s zero evidence that Seal was actually associated with the CIA in real life. “American Made” gladly rewrites his history and character for dramatic effect, much to the movie’s benefit and detriment. The result is a riotous escapade that prefers to fly surface level.
The first character we’re introduced to is really Doug Liman’s direction. Working with Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone, Liman ensures that the camera echoes the excitement of the adventure. It zooms and zips around scenes like a fly that’s intensely invested in the proceedings. Working in conjunction with Spinelli’s swiftly paced screenplay, which never lingers too long on one set-piece or time period, the filmmakers blast boredom out of the airlock.
Next up, of course, is Barry Seal. This is Tom Cruise’s most different role in years, and he relishes it like the passionate performer we tend to forget he is. Cruise is cast against type as Seal — he’s brash, selfish, and doesn’t run from something on foot a single time — and the opportunity to switch things up brings back the glint in Cruise’s eye. Seal’s heart is in the wrong place, and Cruise doesn’t miss a beat in using this to change his character from the inside out.
Domhnall Gleeson lives up to his family name, imbuing his CIA handler with ethical complexity. Sarah Wright is annoyingly one-note as Seal’s wife, but that’s not entirely her fault: she’s an egregious case of underwriting a female character. “American Made” is keen to remind you it was manmade — the male gaze leers in full force.
The narrative is wrapped in political context: namely the Iran-Contra affair, the duplicitous Reagan presidency, and American efforts to eliminate communism from Latin America. There are a lot of historical balls to juggle, which “American Made” solves by throwing them at your face one by one and letting them fall to the floor: sparse narration mentions these background events and then the film forgets them. It’s more interested in pelting you with cinematic energy than political commentary, which is fine — but the few times it does get opinionated, it’s tantalizingly interesting.
In brief glimpses, “American Made” is a polemic against American interventionism, the war on drugs, and capitalistic fervor. But mostly it’s a fun crime movie. The latter is great as it is, but the flashes of something more are better.
It has a perfect ending that hammers home the themes it skimmed across — but then it goes on for another minute or so into typical biography territory. It’s hard to ignore the potential that “American Made” passes on, but there’s still a thrilling and amusing time to be had.
★★★★ (4 out of 5)