One thing that American Made is not is moral. Whether it is political, however, is a different question entirely.
The Doug Liman-directed, Gary Spinelli-penned film tells the pseudo-real life story of pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), who is tapped by the CIA and, eventually, the Pablo Escobar drug cartel, to run product between the U.S. and Nicaragua in the early 1980s.
The film weaves the conspiratorial story of excess and escalating stakes through Cruise’s charming persona, which feels breezy and cheeky in spite of the danger his character is in. Cruise has never shown a large amount of range, and at this point in his career he has fashioned for himself a boyish action figure personality that follows him from movie to movie. Still, he knows how to make a film feel lively through performance alone.
This knack for having a pace-driving performance is what keeps American Made bouncing along. At almost two hours in length, the film could have sputtered to a halt in the middle, where Seal’s journey largely becomes one of routine. Montages of airplane runs over beautiful South American landscapes recur one too many times. But Cruise makes them feel fun even as they become repetitive.
Liman’s familiar directorial choices, too, help American Made go. Seemingly every scene utilizes at least one handheld camera setup, which adds a layer of fly-on-the-wall engagement that keeps the audience in the action. When Cruise is in the cockpit, we often feel like we are his co-pilot, which brings us closer to the exhilaration and danger of the scenario.
What feels strange about the film is its political preoccupations. The film does not jump in with both feet in regards to its political stance (in fact, scenes implicating George Bush and Bill Clinton in the affair were cut from the film’s script). Instead, it keeps politicization on the edges of the narrative until the end, where news footage of Reagan asks us to question how much various government figures knew about the Iran-Contra Affair.
Liman and Spinelli try to play both sides, featuring the insinuation that Clinton was hiding his involvement in the drug running in his state while he was Governor of Arkansas. Still, the hazy politics only act to bog down this film, which is clearly being made more as a romp than an indictment.
To this end, the way American Made handles excess is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film. Seal falls into real danger and effectively loses his family at the end of his run as an operator for the cartel, but he is never truly punished morally for his actions. The film paints the gray-area of the spoils of Seal’s labors as a matter of fact and not a platform from which to proselytize against greed and materialism.
Early in the film, Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA agent “Schafer” explains that Seal’s payment is not illegal if he’s working for the good guys. It is the understanding of who the good guys are that makes the wealth confounding, but Liman does not focus on this quibble. Seal is neither a hero nor a villain; he is a thrill-seeking rogue who stumbled upon a payday.
This is what makes American Made a fun ride. Nowhere in the film are we asked to either align ourselves with Seal or condemn him for his actions. All we are asked to do is enjoy his ride from the co-pilot’s seat.
This is why the historical (or a-historical) lens of the film is both the film’s major shortcoming and its defining feature. The tagline of the film reads proudly: “Based on a true lie.” The story of Seal, as depicted in the film, bumps up against true history and conspiracy theory.
It is clear that Liman and Spinelli do not care about what in the film comes off as fact and what comes off as apocryphal. Yet the film’s desire to return to the political sphere of the narrative sullies this pursuit of an a-historical biopic. In a present America where the concept of what is fact or fiction in politics is so crucial, the insistence of implicating figures in a film that is so clearly hazy in its truth is begging for some audiences to balk at the narrative.
This said, American Made does understand what it is. It may open itself up for contentious interpretations, but it is, at its heart, a vehicle for Tom Cruise to be the charming leading man that he has always been. Particularly compared to Cruise’s other 2017 output, The Mummy, American Made succeeds, even if its attempt at being a romp is undermined by the film’s own internal politics.
American Made: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)