American Made (United States, 2017)

September 28, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
American Made Poster

American Made is loosely – very, very loosely – based on true events. Ultimately, however, little of the real Barry Seal’s life has made it into the film, which is used by director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli as an opportunity to highlight the absurdities and hypocrisy of U.S. intelligence operations. Case in point: the CIA’s strange bedfellows in the war against communism, which included dictators, drug traffickers, and incompetent guerillas. In order to highlight many of the bizarre connections that led to the late 1980s Iran/Contra scandal, the filmmakers have turned Seal (played by Tom Cruise) into a Forrest Gump-like character who interacts with all the major players in every ‘80s Central American event. The screenplay is quirky enough to resemble an unfinished Coen Brothers narrative but mainstream enough to appeal to a broad audience.

I mention this often but it’s worth repeating in conjunction with American Made: if you’re looking for a history lesson, don’t expect to get it from a studio-funded motion picture. Seal’s story is just a jumping-off point for a Tom Cruise action film with a light, often playful tone and a political ax to grind. It doesn’t take a lot of insight to figure out that Spinelli’s script is anti-Reagan and, to push this agenda, he resorts to some cheap shots (including one involving Nancy Reagan’s famous “just say no” TV address, which is intercut with government-funded goons smuggling drugs into the U.S.). Overall, however, American Made is enjoyable because, although fabrications abound, there’s a nugget of truth at the core about how, from an intelligence agency’s viewpoint, the ends always justify the means, no matter how corrupt and contradictory those means may be. In the intelligence trenches, where secrets are the currency and only results count, there are no white hats or black hats, only gray ones.

I’m tempted to label American Made as a (dark) comedy because, at times, it is laugh-out-loud funny and the humor is intentional. Tom Cruise is in fine form here with a charismatic, high-energy performance designed to expunge our memories of his appearance in The Mummy. His interpretation of Seal bears little resemblance to the real man. This is essentially Cruise in action star mode and, as such, he’s compulsively watchable.

The story is convoluted. It starts in 1978 with a bored Seal piloting 707s for TWA. When a CIA agent who goes by the name of “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) offers him an opportunity to do aerial photography of Central American locations, Seal jumps at the chance, although his change of career requires lying to his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright). Surveillance leads to ground operations, with Seal delivering packages to General Noriega. He is then approached by two drug runners, Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Maruicio Mejia), who would like him to transport cocaine on his return trips to the U.S. They are willing to pay $2000 per kilo and, on his first trip, Seal carries 300 kilos. The CIA turns a blind eye to Seal’s drug running and gives him another task: take guns to the Contras. But, since the Contras are basically lazy and want drugs, not guns, Seal creates an elaborate scam in which the drug lords get the CIA-supplied guns with the agency being none-the-wiser. It can’t last (and it doesn’t) but Seal launders so much money that he runs out of places to put it.

Liman’s recreation of the late 1970s and early 1980s is adequate, relying primarily on the go-to elements of hairstyles, pop tunes, and outdated items like payphones and era-specific cars. The movie does enough to remind us it’s transpiring some 35 years ago without fully transporting us there. The narrative satirizes bad behavior in much the same way Martin Scorsese did in the superior The Wolf of Wall Street, which Liman may have used as a template. Little of what’s on offer here will surprise those who lived through the ‘80s and paid attention to the Iran/Contra hearings and you don’t have to be a conspiracy theory nut to accept that the CIA does things like these. American Made is breezy and fun and makes its points without subjecting the viewer to a browbeating.

American Made (United States, 2017)

Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Alejandro Edda, Mauricio Mejia
Home Release Date: 2018-01-02
Screenplay: Gary Spinelli
Cinematography: Cesar Charlone
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2017-09-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1