Tom Cruise flies planes (and wears aviators) in a movie that is generally better and more fun than Top Gun, but not necessarily as iconic.
In the mold of The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me If You Can, or Dallas Buyer’s Club, American Made is a cinematic interpretation of a real-life story wherein a normal person partakes in an illicit opportunity that soon spirals out of their control. Its one of those films that highlights an interesting nugget in history that you may not have otherwise been aware of. In this case, the person of interest is Barry Seal, a talented airline pilot who is initially recruited by the CIA to assist them with reconnaissance work in South America in the late 1970’s. Barry’s success and talent eventually puts him on the radar of a group of Colombian crime lords who pay him vast amounts of money to smuggle cocaine into the US. What unfolds is a series of events each seemingly more absurd and ridiculous than the last, but nonetheless all true.
Ok, ok, true in the relative sense of the word. Like all of the aforementioned films, this one takes liberties with its source of inspiration. There’s a reason they tell you that it’s “based on a true story” and not “a dramatic reenactment of actual events”. Barry Seal was a real person, and he was one of the most successful and well-known drug smugglers of the early 1980’s. However, the film doesn’t depict history in exactly the same way that it occurred in real life. Certain liberties are taken with the sequence of events, and certain aspects are be embellished for dramatic flair. In fact, I’ll let you in on a little secret. This film is not a historical drama at all. It’s a comedy, and that’s the genius that many people might miss.
The film’s biggest arm twist may is the way that it suggests the CIA played a major role in creating the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s. I’m afraid that the uninformed may use this conclusion to stoke anti-government sentiment. The truth is probably somewhere between what is shown in the film and complete innocence, but there’s a reason that this film takes things so far. It’s a parody of reality, a retelling of actual events but in a braggadocious manner. It’s designed to be skewed just enough to make you question whether or not what happened in the film actually happened in real life. When you realize the close proximity between fact and fiction, that’s when the film has made its point. That’s when the problem with fake news becomes all too apparent.
Once we are able to understand the use of historical inaccuracy as a tool to create irony rather than accusation, American Made is a hoot to watch. Domhnall Gleeson plays a CIA liaison who shows up from time to time to give Barry a new task (and advance the plot). The details are limited, and Barry has no choice but to follow his orders. Interestingly, this interaction between these two characters echoes the way that the audience interacts with the film. A voiceover narration helps to explain what is happening, piecemealing the details on an as-needed basis. The plot is so slick that we don’t have time to question the details, we’re just along for the ride. Specifics are not important, but at the same time, they’re not needed. After All, the comedic presentation is after grins, not necessarily truths.
What keeps the audience on the edge of their seats is all of the risk involved. At the beginning of the film, Barry is looking for more excitement in his life. His job is seemingly going nowhere, and it no longer interests him the way it once did. He’s looking for a challenge, and the CIA’s offer is that and more. From that point on, the insanity snowballs. The film jumps from one risky maneuver to another. Barry has to navigate bad ideas, precarious intel, and incompetent coworkers. Actually, the more success that Barry and his partners have, the more risk they bring on themselves because they become bigger targets. That’s really part of the fun of this film. We may know how it ends, and Barry’s activities are not redeemable at all, but the audience gets swept up in the excitement nonetheless. Tom Cruise sells it well, and we can’t wait to see how far he can go.
As is the case with any film these days featuring Tom Cruise, everyone will be talking about Tom Cruise. He’s become such a bright star (for better AND for worse), that he threatens to blind the audience from other aspects of the film. Thankfully, this is one role where his domination of a film works well. For one, the role is actually a good fit for Tom Cruise. It requires a lot of energy, charisma, and stamina, of which Tom Cruise has both in spades. It’s also a more dramatic turn than we have seen him in more recent flicks, which is refreshing because we’ve forgotten that Tom Cruise is a decent actor. This is definitely the kind of role that was the right fit for Tom, rather than trying to use Tom’s star power to sell a movie he has no business being in.
Director Doug Liman brings the hard-hitting, fast paced stylings that has made his action films so successful. His decision to tell his story here in an almost satirical manner is what really makes the film work well. By eschewing a more documentarian style, Liman is able to translate the adrenaline rush of his characters to the audience. As we witness them pull off crazy illegal activities, we feel like we are part of the action. However Liman’s direction is not flawless. Oddly enough, he uses a lot of twitchy dutch angles, especially with dialogue shots, which is downright distracting. The film is also far too close to its actors faces, which can be dizzying at times. Tom Cruise’s excitement is sufficient to convey a sentiment across to the audience - we don’t need the entire screen full of face to get the picture.
One thing that Liman does well is create a film that is literally airborne. Barry’s planes become just as much a focus as the main characters themselves. As the plot takes off, we are presented to wonderful sequences of machinery in motion. Barry loves to fly, and the film does a great job of translating that thrill to the audience through great stunts, camera work, and editing. The music, sound, and graphic overlays all keep everything moving at a brisk pace too. There are many times that the film feels like one giant montage, and in this case it works.
American Made is not the most educational historic retelling. The film isn’t full of uniquely captivating performances, and its plot verges on familiar territory. So it isn’t perfect, but it is exciting and worth watching. Tom Cruise's’ participation, and the way that the film’s direction can be (mis)construed as a slight against the US Government may be enough to turn some people off. That’s understandable, and part of the film’s charm. After all, the film tells a story of one of the most infamous drug smugglers of all time almost from the perspective that he’s innocent. The film’s argument is that he was looking for a thrill, and he found it. So did we.