Thirty years ago, Tom Cruise played a cock-sure, gung-ho naval pilot in the classic Top Gun. Now he plays another hot shot pilot in American Made. This bizarre story about drug smuggling, gun running and money laundering again proves that quite often truth is far stranger than fiction.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a disenchanted pilot with TWA who uses his position to smuggle small contraband items, like Cuban cigars, into America. Then in 1978 he is recruited by shady CIA agent named Shafer (played by Domhnall Gleeson) to work for the spy organisation. Seal is hired to fly over suspected insurgent sites in Central America and photograph them using the latest reconnaissance technology. The job entails some risks, but Seal seems to enjoy the adrenaline rush and makes the most of this new adventure and excitement for a change. He becomes a bagman delivering money to corrupt Panamanian strongman and CIA informant Manuel Noriega. But one time when he is refuelling at a small airfield in Columbia he is approached by none other than Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), the notorious drug lord, to smuggle drugs into the USA. Seal develops a foolproof method of doing this, and earns Escobar’s trust. One thing leads to another and before long Seal is also involved in running guns to El Salvador on behalf of the Reagan administration, which is keen to squash rebellion in the area.
Seal is practically rolling in cash. As he says in his voice over narration, “the money was coming in faster than I could launder it.” Forced to move his family for safety reasons, Seal moves to the small town of Mena in Arkansas. With suitcases of money tucked away in barns and hangars, Seal opens a number of bank branches to handle the influx of cash. But when Seal’s down and out brother in law J D (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives for a visit his reckless ways bring unwanted attention from the local sheriff (Jesse Plemons) and ultimately federal authorities.
American Made is an unconventional biopic about a pilot whose covert operations under the auspices of the CIA brought about the birth of the Medellin drug cartel and almost brought down the Reagan administration. It has been written by Gary Spinelli (Stash House), who has obviously taken lots of liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes, and spans several years. He offers up a deft mix of drama leavened with generous touches of humour. Spinelli uses a framing device in which Seal, fearing for his life, records his unbelievable story onto a series of video tapes. The story itself seems to have a few similarities with other supposedly true-life stories, like 2001’s Blow. Spinelli is fairly cynical about US politics of the 80s and its interference in Central America particularly, and of the CIA’s inadvertent role in creating the drug scourge that gripped America. The film also illustrates how the country is now reaping the consequences of these policies and deals with corrupt regimes and drug barons, but it only seems to scratch the surface of these murky scandals.
The film has been directed by Doug Liman, who previously worked with Cruise on the sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow, and obviously the pair have a good rapport. He tries to bring some depth and excitement to this true story of hubris and corruption, but the film lacks a genuine sense of pace and tension, and Liman’s light touch seems at odds with the serious nature of the material itself. A filmmaker like Martin Scorsese would have brought more energy and visual flair to this material – consider what he did with the true story of The Wolf of Wall Street, for example, by way of a contrast. The way in which Scorsese incorporated soundtracks in his films captured the tenor of the times, and he made the music almost another character in the drama. Liman lacks that same sense of flair or exuberance, and his use of music here seems more perfunctory.
Uruguayan cinematographer Cesar Charlone (City of God) has shot the film in a vintage, washed-out colour palette reminiscent of the gritty crime dramas of the 70s. Production design and costumes also capture an authentic 80s aesthetic.
Seal is more of an anti-hero role for Cruise, but he still brings plenty of his usual charisma and swagger, that toothy grin and star wattage to the role, and his easy-going presence makes it easy to explain how he was able to talk his way out of difficult situations. Gleeson is good as the enigmatic Schafer, a young CIA agent eager to make a name for himself in this clandestine world of secret deals and off the books operations. Landry Jones again gives us another variation of the sleazy, weasly white trash character that has become part of his repertoire. Sarah Wright Olsen is a bit shrill as Seal’s venal wife Lucy, who likes to spend his money, but she leaves little impression on the material. She is actually a composite character comprising details from Seal’s succession of wives. The solid supporting cast though wastes the likes of Plemons, who is given little to do as the town sheriff; Lola Kirke as his wife; and E Roger Mitchell as an FBI agent.
A flawed work, American Made is nonetheless an entertaining film that marks a bit of a return to form for Cruise after the recent misfire of The Mummy.
American Made is now available on DVD and streaming services.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Brawl in Cell Block 99 – home entertainment review
- Marauders – home entertainment review
- Beyond Skyline – home entertainment review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television