This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare. You know, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about twenty years, The Colour of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.
Cruise is lucky he has such a ready supply of moisturiser (he may well have been subjected to the kind of de-aging effects work that made Brad Pitt look ridiculously plasticky in Allied, but it doesn’t show here), since he’s nearly a decade older and a good eight stone lighter than Barry Seal was when he was offed by the cartels for playing both ends a little too studiously (although, it seems the buck stops with Ollie North).
There’s no difficulty at all seeing him as a young-ish guy, still in his thirties, except that your brain knows full well he isn’t. As such, there’s something of a disconnect having him paired with yet another featureless female co-star (Sarah Wright, only two decades his junior). Although, to be fair, the problems there are more about a wafer-thin, entirely reactive part than Wright’s performance.
Seal has already been portrayed four times before, first by Dennis Hopper (1991 TV movie Doublecrossed; curiously, Hopper was about the same age Cruise is now). Then, in the last couple of years on TV (in Alias El Mexicano and Narcos). And most recently, by Michael Paré in The Infiltrator (Paré even has a few years on Tom). It isn’t difficult to see how the appeal of the character lodged in Cruise’s mind in the current movie climate.
A happy-go-lucky charmer and scoundrel, Seal forsook his career with TWA for a more colourful one, working for the CIA while smuggling drugs and arms, the former for the Medellin Cartel, the latter at the behest of his nominal paymasters to supply the Nicaraguan Contras (this after previously acting as a courier to General Noriega).
Eventually, Seal ends up out on a limb as the CIA abandon him to the FBI, DEA and law enforcement generally (in an amusingly unlikely confluence of parties, they show up to apprehend him simultaneously), his only recourse being to work for the Reagan White House’s anti-drugs campaign by obtaining evidence that the Medellin Cartel is in cahoots with the Sandanistas (upon which, the White House “carelessly” releases the footage and Seal becomes a marked man).
At least, that’s Doug Liman’s and screenwriter Gary Spinelli’s version. You can find various other accounts of Seal, some suggesting he was actually working for the CIA from the mid-50s, including involvement in Cuba, Guatemala and Vietnam (Air America), with links to Clay Shaw and even the JFK assassination (piloting a getaway plane from Dallas).
He was brought to trial in 1974, in connection with supplying explosives to anti-Castro Cubans (a mistrial ensued) and then began working for the CIA full time (while also working for the DEA, so their obliviousness to his antics in the movie wouldn’t quite have been that). Actual imprisonment followed (smuggling cocaine from Ecuador; he spent nine months in stir before being released without charge), and it was his incarceration there that led to his contact with the Medellin Cartel.
When he was arrested in ’84, for Quaalude smuggling and money laundering, he was the one who contacted the White House and fed them what they wanted to hear (that the Cartel was in league with the Sandinistas). And when he was put on probation (Salvation Army community service), he was apparently of the view that he had little to worry about from the Colombians, because he hadn’t implicated senior members; rather, the US Government and CIA contacts, including Bush Sr, had him nervous, with a trail leading back to North.
Reading that gnarly, almost Forrest Gump-like selection of events and encounters – most of which you won’t find in his Wikipedia entry – you long for Oliver Stone in his prime to get hold of the story. It’s entirely understandable that Hollywood, and in particular a Cruise vehicle, would opt for a sanitised, knockabout version of Seal’s life, in which he simply stumbles haplessly from smuggling a few Cuban cigars (although that may in itself be a nod by the screenwriter to his actual previous form), to juggling multiple employers. Is it any coincidence that you finish the movie as you started, not really know anything about Barry, other than he’s Tom Cruise? Having said that, though, that’s almost enough.
You can see Tom’s thinking. DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can and Wolf made a hit of roguish real-life characters. Seal brings with him the cachet of the dark side of the American dream. Dark as in, it’s fully graspable just as long as you flout, disregard and generally neglect anything even approaching legal behaviour (Goodfellas).
The difference is, Cruise doesn’t knuckle down the way DiCaprio does. There’s always glamour to his thinking (and hey, Seal’s a pilot; Tom gets to fly!) Still, that’s fine for the movie this is, a broad take emphasising a smooth operator. Fidelity to facts (or alleged incidents – you’re never really going to get to truth with any kind of certainty with this kind of story) comes second to the rhythm and pace of depicting the landing-on-his-feet luck of a guy who apparently can’t fail.
And there’s many a sequence here that fulfils that remit, from Seal taking off in a cocaine-overburdened plane from an impossibly small airstrip, to he and his team outwitting the DEA by flying by oilrigs (so they’re mistaken for helicopters) or just flying slow (the DEA jets are too fast and eventually need to refuel), to his eventual arrest and cocksure certainty that the charges will be dropped. Liman also encourages the unspooling insanity of events in Mena, Arkansas, with Barry unable to find anywhere to stash all his cash and plane loads of Contras, flown in to be trained up (they’re mostly rather indifferent to the prospect).
The trouble might be that Liman, renowned for building his movies in the edit (with subsequent reshoots), doesn’t have the vicelike grip on material Scorsese does, and with a rambling, freewheeling narrative (as opposed to The Edge of Tomorrow’s clear, calculated one), he fails to charge up the picture.
American Made is highly watchable, and breakneck in eventfulness, but it rarely manages to be invigorating with it, in the kind of controlled out-of-control manner you can see in the last hour of Goodfellas, for example. There’s little tension, and not really all that much resonance when Barry meets his end. Liman punctuates the narrative with Seal’s videotaped reminiscences, but they seem like an afterthought that fails to provides glue to the parts. The result is way superior to Air America, which had not dissimilar subject matter, but short of how incisive it might have been.
The picture exhibits an essential ’70s decayed-orange hue courtesy of César Charlone’s cinematography (the faded period-style production company logos, including Universal’s from the period are a nice touch) and a soundtrack that hits all the right period signposts. The supporting cast are solid, including Domnhall Gleeson as Seal’s casually manipulative CIA contact and Caleb Landry Jones reaching new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at it) with his expanding roster of repulsive specimens as Barry’s brother-in-law. Jesse Plemons, as the Mena sheriff, seems to have mostly ended up on the cutting room floor, somewhere along the line.
You can add American Made to the list of good-but-not-great Cruise movies of the last decade (Oblivion, the first Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Knight and Day), and the same with Liman, who with few exceptions (The Edge of Tomorrow) fashions interesting but flawed mainstream movies (he’s a journeyman with merit points).
I don’t really see American Made making a whole lot of money, and I don’t see its title helping any. Whoever bottled calling it Mena – you can see the conversations of concerned execs about how no one will know what it mean-a-s – was evidently oblivious to the fact that giving it the blandest, most homogenous title going (and it isn’t clever, any more than calling it American Dream) is likely to create antipathy towards its content and ensure any potential audience won’t inquire further.