Based on a true story and set in the late seventies/early eighties, Doug Liman’s American Made centres around Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), an incredibly talented TWA pilot who is recruited by the CIA to fly surveillance planes over various countries in South America, taking important tactical photographs of communist encampments, reporting to CIA handler Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). Soon, after his work gets noticed, Barry is sought out by the Medellín Cartel and he quickly starts working for them as well, delivering massive shipments of cocaine into the US and as he continues to work multiple sides, Barry builds up an enormous business empire, earning an overwhelming amount of money by taking his surveillance photos and delivering drugs and armaments to both the Cartel and the freedom-fighting Contras.
As a biographical film, American Made certainly has a unique and fascinating story that’s based on real events and the informative subject matter relating to the Escobar-era Cartel and the whole Iran-Contra affair is a particularly interesting part of American history, well worth the big screen treatment. While it all may be a lot to take in, with so many different layers relating to the Sandinistas, the Cartel, the Contras, Iran, Reagan, Oliver North and the war on drugs and so on, the film goes over these events in as fun a way as possible, using Tom Cruise’s constant Goodfellas style narration, remarking on the craziness of it all, as well as his video diaries and some animated maps that show just what is going on. As I say, it’s a very compelling part of American history and thankfully, I was previously aware of the basic historical facts, having memorized that “educational” American Dad! song about the whole thing!
The only problem is that the film soon starts to follow a similar pattern: Barry works for one side, gets discovered by another and gets put to work on something new, his “arrangement” changing throughout the film; the problem is that when he gets tasked with a new assignment for the umpteenth time, the film seems to go round in circles somewhat. The pace slows in the second half and it runs the risk of outstaying its welcome and after the halfway turning point, the film doesn’t quite maintain the same level of interest. Also, there doesn’t ever seem to be any credible danger; after the first half in which we see the main character get richer, enjoying a more luxurious lifestyle, there’s the expectation of a turning point, of something happening that will cause it all to come crashing down, but despite a few threat-filled scenes, Barry never seems to be in any real danger and ultimately, it’s pretty much smooth sailing and he essentially keeps on smiling from start to finish. The threat is obviously there, with the Cartel and whatnot, but we never truly believe that he could lose everything as he always seems to have friends in the right places and always lands on his feet.
Doug Liman’s direction is very good as for the most part, he keeps the film moving at a very brisk pace and injects plenty of humour and colourful visual flair, using those animated maps to keep us in the loop as to what’s going on and also by creating a pseudo-documentary style, using a great deal of handheld camerawork and slow zooms as well as grainy, seventies-era cinematography and archive footage of the real events/people when required. He balances tones effectively as American Made is altogether exciting, engaging, funny and tense.
Gary Spinelli’s script is also admirable as it is informative but he also keeps things light by including plenty of perfectly placed comedy and good humour. It could be said that American Made has the same basic structure of films like The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas since it’s kind of a rags-to-riches type story where the main character enjoys the high life for a while but then faces the inevitable downturn, as well as the film’s inclusion of a protagonist’s narration, breaking down what’s going on for the audience. American Made doesn’t quite achieve this as successfully as the aforementioned films because by now, we’re all too wary of this kind of structure and when things go south, there’s not quite enough threat or danger. But saying all of that, the film still has a clear structure and the actual writing is top-notch as all the dialogue hits the ear perfectly and it’s an overall gripping, imaginative story.
After his regrettable decision to star in The Mummy earlier this year, Tom Cruise definitely has his mojo back as he is a very charismatic presence throughout; practically smiling and laughing through the whole film, he delivers a finely tuned performance, enjoying himself as his character revels in the craziness of what he’s gotten himself into, getting mega rich quickly and cockily piloting aircraft like a pro (or a “Maverick”!). He also shows a sense of naivety as he blindly accepts assignments from all over, preferring not to ask any questions, and he also believably shows concern for his family when things start to go wrong. Cruise is a fine lead as his energy keeps the film afloat, he handles the comedic elements brilliantly and he makes sure that Barry Seal is always fascinating to watch.
Elsewhere, Domhnall Gleeson provides strong, confident support as Barry’s CIA handler, a man who can seem like an affable confidante but who may also be keeping things from him, true agency man that he is, and Sarah Wright is also good as Barry’s wife Lucy but doesn’t really evolve beyond the simple role of “the wife”, paling in comparison to the likes of Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street or Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas. But it’s a shame that, despite prominent billing, Jesse Plemons had literally nothing to do in the part of the local police sheriff; we are given a glimpse into his family/work life and it’s also implied that his character will soon cross paths with Barry, possibly going on to investigate his activities, but Plemons’ part could very well have been cut out of the film entirely because as it stands, he’s only there to advance the plot a tiny bit.