Given the events of the last few years, I think we can agree on a couple of things. One: Truth is stranger than fiction. Two: Leaders can make truly terrible, stupid decisions. Real-life crime film American Made hinges on these two points, reminding us that as much as it may seem like we’re stuck on the Darkest Timeline now, it’s not the first time the world has felt this way. Part drama, part action and part black comedy, American Made is a movie that will leave you cheering the little guy as he crooks a broken system for his benefit … and almost gets away with it.
If you have a hard time rooting for characters with a spinning moral compass, it’s probably best to stay away from American Made. If, though, you enjoy movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Lord of War, Goodfellas and Catch Me if You Can, this one is worth your time.
American Made is a tale of gleefully corrupt capitalism and opportunistic spirit. Barry Seal (played by Tom Cruise) is a pilot and entrepreneur who ends up making more money than he know what to do with, primarily because he says “yes” to every offer that comes his way. This applies whether the offer is a conflict of interest or not – or, in fact, whether it’s legal or not. Peak cynicism, perhaps, but you really don’t get more “Murica” an attitude than that.
To clarify, American Made is based on a true story. We meet Barry Seal in the late 1970s as a bored TWA pilot who’s taken to smuggling Cuban cigars to add a bit of excitement to his life, and a bit of extra cash to his wallet. He has a family to support, after all. Observing this, Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA agent recruits Barry to fly reconnaissance missions over destabilised South America. The situation escalates once Barry comes to the attention of the region’s cocaine kingpins. By the mid-80s Barry has built an aviation empire couriering information, drugs, weapons and US-funded rebels back and forth between the Americas, earning a healthy cut for himself with every trip. In the process he crosses paths with notorious historical figures like General Noriega, Pablo Escobar and even George W. Bush in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
Of course, with this type of rise-and-fall crime story, the party can’t last forever. Ultimately Barry has to face the consequences for his actions. Still, concluding events are given a jaunty treatment instead of sinking into gloomy, moralising molasses. American Made’s lingering message is that you can get away with pretty much anything if you’re useful to the right, powerful people. Just be smart and cover your ass if you want to survive.
Barry Seal is a roguish everyman; charismatic, fast-thinking and frequently funny as he improvises his way out of several nightmare scenarios. It’s a great part and a post-Mummy comeback for Cruise, who is always far more interesting when he gets to deviate from serious Marty-Stu heroics. It’s a fortunate thing Cruise is so good here because it’s really up to him to carry the movie. None of the other supporting players are presented in any depth. Sarah Wright, as the only significant female character in the movie, comes across as little more than a blonde trophy wife. Although, to be fair, Mrs Seal is loyal, savvy and always ready to get her hands dirty.
American Made is consistently breezy and entertaining. Director Doug Liman, who worked with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow, and also made The Bourne Identity and Mr & Mrs Smith, keeps things sharply edited and snappily shot. Pace starting to flag? Snip the scene then and there, and jump to the next one. The filmmaker also introduces a lot of period-appropriate visual flair, right down to using the old VHS-era Universal logo to start the movie. American Made bounces along without ever boring.
At the same time, however, there’s the nagging suspicion that the film’s energy is designed to mask a distinct lack of emotional, as well as thematic, depth. A couple of assassinations aside, the film skips the blackest bits from this period of history – the war crimes committed in Revolution-savaged Nicaragua, for example. You can safely shake your head and chuckle along with Barry’s shenanigans, because you never see the horrors that his wheeling and dealing enables. Neither does he.
Post-viewing you’re probably not going to reflect much on American Made. It’s a slick popcorn flick for adults with a sardonic sense of humour. It doesn’t have much new to say about greed and self-interest other than it’s standard, especially when it comes to our leaders past and present. But, hey, it’s still easy to enjoy while you watch it.
Last Updated: August 31, 2017