It is the late 1970s and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a real-life pilot who flies for TWA and does some nickel and dime smuggling on the side. He occasionally carries Cuban cigars in his luggage. He sees it as earning extra money for his young family. The CIA see it as a personality trait they can exploit to their advantage. An operative called Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches Seal with an offer. They will set him up with a fast new plane and his own company, if he takes aerial intelligence photographs of communist forces in a variety of Central and South American locations. As the story moves into the 1980s, Seal’s connection with the CIA leads him into murkier and more lucrative ventures. He also goes to work for the Colombian Medellin drug cartel and becomes a major cocaine smuggler.
This merely scratches the surface of Seal’s career as a man who was simultaneously in the employ of US intelligence and Colombian drug lords. He is making ridiculous amounts of money and participates in some truly bizarre events. Seal has no moral compass and he will do practically anything to turn a buck. The CIA is fighting communists for the Reagan and later the Bush (senior) administrations and they will do almost anything to pursue this end; as the film makes clear, it is the USA versus the USSR–the Cold War fought by proxy.
In popular culture, the 1980s, has been represented by the WALL STREET movie slogan “Greed is Good” and the world of AMERICAN MADE is one of excess and indulgence. While Crockett and Tubbs of Miami Vice were fighting Colombians on US television and suffering moral confusion, the reality was more confusing and far dirtier than the US Government would admit to. In addition to the coke, there were illegal guns and connections to both the Sandinistas and the Contras, the opposing sides in the war for Nicaragua. Seal is a criminal, but to some extent he’s government approved. (Sidebar: a fictionalised character called Barry Seal is played by Michael Paré, in the recent drug-crime movie THE INFILTRATOR).
Director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli have created a story that is a fast-moving and satirical look at recent history. There are several cracking scenes that beautifully balance action, tension and comedy. Although not an action movie per se, Liman’s BOURNE IDENTITY and EDGE OF TOMORROW chops are in evidence. The performances are uniformly good. Domhnall Gleeson, who is well-known for a variety of put-upon and oddball roles is a straightforward manipulator here. Sarah Wright makes an impression as Lucy, the underwritten wife role. Lucy’s brother Bubba is greasily performed by Caleb Landry Jones. And then there’s Tom Cruise.
Cruise rose to fame embodying the 1980s alpha male yuppies. High achievers like Joel in RISKY BUSINESS or cocky main-chancers like Maverick in TOP GUN were his stock-in-trade. In later years, his super-talented and physically efficient heroes Ethan Hunt of the Mission Impossible franchise and Jack Reacher were another strand of largely flawless characters he portrayed for fun and profit. Unsurprisingly, Cruise tends to be more interesting playing a guy with everything to lose. His roles in THE COLOUR OF MONEY, RAIN MAN, JERRY MCGUIRE and WAR OF THE WORLDS are variations of the guy who should have succeeded, but is now fighting to keep his head above water. Struggling Cruise has a certain compelling quality that his winner characters lack.
Barry Seal struggles through a series of challenges. He stays one step ahead of his self-created problems. As presented in AMERICAN MADE he is an amoral man with a saleable talent. Cruise has some villains in his back catalogue but Seal isn’t that precisely. He is utterly selfish, yet convinced he is working for his family. This is a departure for the actor and he does a great job with this part. He and director Liman are a strong team.
AMERICAN MADE is a funny and entertaining ride through a dangerous era. It runs for 115 minutes. (8/10)