by Philip Price
“American Made” is one of those "so crazy it must be true" stories that comes to shed light on what was seemingly a mess the U.S. government frantically tried to clean up, but couldn't help only making bigger messes out of. “American Made” looks to sheds light on an individual who was essentially taken advantage of despite the fact he himself took advantage of every opportunity he was given. Never stopping to question the repercussions of his actions, his own moral compass- never mind the ones of those he was in league with, or considering his ultimate role in the scheme of things Barry Seal was a reckless man who lived fast and loose and thus this movie about his life appropriately does the same thing. From director Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”), “American Made” is one-part Tom Cruise-vehicle, one-part biopic, and just a wholly unbelievable adventure tale that asks the audience to go along with it even as the places it goes that it claims to be true are preposterous. That said, while the film capably chronicles the fast-paced life of one, Barry Seal, it doesn't stop long enough to really meditate on any of the decisions, plans, or ideas that its protagonist might have had or considered when going through with his actions. We get little in the way of motivation other than the fact Seal seems to crave a wilder lifestyle than that of what his life as a commercial airline pilot for TSA was providing. While “American Made” might not carry as much depth as one would expect when discussing past political decisions, drug cartels, money laundering, and the like Liman directs the film, written by man of few credits Gary Spinelli, as if Seal himself was telling it; the filmmaker even including snippets of Seal talking into a VHS camcorder as he recounts his story periodically throughout the feature. This is Barry Seal's story in the style of Barry Steal-fast and loose. And by imbuing this type of style through to the overall tone of the film it allows for “American Made,” while not necessarily deep, to feel authentic and naturally revealing. More than anything, “American Made” is a hell of an entertaining ride and one can't ask for much more than that out of a Tom Cruise blockbuster that isn't an action blockbuster in 2017.
As stated, we meet Seal in 1978 when he was a commercial airline pilot for TSA (where he was fired from in 1972 after being caught in Mexico with explosives that were supposedly on their way to anti-Castro Cubans). In “American Made,” Seal is initially sniffed out by the CIA, and more specifically a man named 'Schafer' (Domhnall Gleeson), for smuggling cigars into the U.S. Schafer enlists Seal to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions for the CIA over South America and take what Seal affectionately refers to as "snaps". While both Schafer and Schafer's bosses at the CIA are pleased with what Seal is delivering they aren't exactly compensating him in ways that are as enticing as the adventures they're delivering. As Seal's reputation continues to improve in the CIA circles he is asked to act as a courier between the CIA and General Noriega (Alberto Ospino) in Panama. While in Panama, Seal is approached by the likes of the Medellín Cartel that includes Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), about flying their product into the U.S. on his return trips home. The Cartel has seemingly had many failures regarding getting their product into the U.S., but given they're willing to pay a thousand dollars per every pound he delivered, Seal not only agreed, but developed a system of dropping the product off over Louisiana without ever landing. While Schafer is seemingly aware of what Seal is up to, but chooses to turn a blind eye to, the DEA is not and tracks Seal down thus forcing Schafer to move Seal, his wife (Sarah Wright), and their children to the remote town of Mena, Ark. Once in Mena, Schafer adjusts Seal's role to that of a gun runner for the Nicaraguan-based Contras who were a rebel group to their country's Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government that were backed by the U.S. government. The thing is, these Contras didn't really care about fighting or becoming soldiers-when Seal is asked to bring in some of the men to the U.S. for training purposes many of them flee the base once they hit American soil-and so Seal, seeing the lack of desire and skill in the Contras he once again starts helping the Medellín Cartel transport drugs as well as trading guns to the Cartel as well. Seal's operation becoming so successful he has more money than he knows what to do with.
Sounds insane, right? That somehow, over the course of a condensed, two-hour narrative, this guy can go from his humble beginnings as a commercial airline pilot to what could be considered one of the people responsible for bringing the crack/cocaine epidemic Stateside in the eighties and yet, Seal somehow manages to pull that one off. This brings us to the fact that, despite the retrospective of Seal's story being an entertaining romp, his actions were extremely self-serving, irresponsible, and downright shocking when stepping back to consider the fact the CIA essentially looked the other way to Seal smuggling drugs if he was also serving their purpose of getting guns to the Contra regime. So, how does Seal then come out to be the hero of this story? How is this man who did nothing but bad things and brought nothing but stress and hardship down on those he loved to save for a brief period when they had anything they wanted, the same person that is this charming, charismatic, and lovingly foolish rascal that's nearly impossible to dislike? Sometimes it's because he's not the hero of the story despite being the most prominent figure in it, but much of the reason has to deal with the fact it is Cruise playing him. Having not seen the movie star (and man, does he ever prove he is a movie star here) in this capacity in quite some time (2012's “Rock of Ages” was his last non-action hero role) it is kind of thrilling to watch Cruise have so much fun as he gets to fly across beautiful landscapes, act without any constraints while seemingly paying no consequences for his actions as he trusts that no matter what he does, his newest employer will have his back. And, for a long time and for a lot more than one might expect, they do. Schafer continues to give Seal all he needs to play both sides of the rope, but while Cruise's Seal is endearing and his story a wild one, there is still something “American Made” must say about its main character-even if it's not particularly profound. “American Made” isn't a movie about the politics of what is happening (though I'm sure a very serious drama could be made of as much), it is a movie about Seal's shenanigans and how he can in fact get away with them for as long as he does. Whether we like to admit it or not, this country largely rewards bad behavior in that the individuals who typically act in such ways are lauded as the more interesting and appealing for their willingness to go where others won't. Is this revelatory or insightful? No, but the fact this guy, who walks a seemingly perfect balance between genius and insanity, could do what he did with who he did it for any amount of time is insane and that Liman and Cruise have created this confection that I enjoyed makes the bigger statement about the fact it doesn't matter what the movie must say, but that it's more about what they want their audience to realize.
As it is, “American Made” is indeed a good time at the movies and much of that does in fact must deal with Cruise's central performance, but outside of Cruise somewhat re-living his glory days in this roguish/adrenaline-seeking role of Seal the film also gives interesting caveats of characters to the people that surround him. Naturally, the appearance of Escobar and the other founding members of the Medellín Cartel are critical to Seal's story, but what is more fascinating is the role Wright's Lucy comes to play in her husband's life. In real life, Seal was on his second marriage by the time the events in the film take place, with another marriage on the way. Still, while we initially expect Wright's Lucy to despise her husband for his actions and likely leave him taking their two kids and the one on the way with her (again, in real life Seal had five children across his three marriages) she does not. In fact, she somewhat embraces their new-found fortune and prefers to ask as few questions as possible while relishing in the lifestyle she has been provided as much as she seemingly can. While Wright is nearly 20 years Cruise's junior (he was starring in “Risky Business” the year she was born) this strangely makes sense as the real Seal was in his mid-40s when these events transpired (which Cruise can totally pull off) and per his personality, going for a younger woman seems like the type of thing he'd be up for if not intent on. This factors in very little though, which is a credit to both stars, as it is their relationship based purely on love and infatuation for one another with not an ounce of trust between them that somehow manages to work. Add to this Caleb Landry Jones as Lucy's backwoods brother who can't help but to ruin a good thing (it was always his destiny, it seems) as well as Jesse Plemons as the local, Polk County sheriff and the film contains enough character dynamics to keep audiences invested in its eventful, but rather straightforward narrative. Liman and screenwriter Spinelli don't allow themselves to get too deep into the semantics of Seal's many situations and the politics of his circumstances, but rather they allow “American Made” to possess this kind of improvised style that sustains itself by being able to somehow continually up the ante in this true story that reaches levels of genuine absurdity. Liman's greens pop, his camera is shaky, but focused, and as he slyly sneaks in a subtle internal discussion on our inherent preferences for people based on their appeal versus their ethics, “American Made” ultimately comes to be something we can't take our eyes off even if we know we shouldn't reward Seal's shamelessness.