Mark Reviews Movies

American Made


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Doug Liman

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 9/29/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 29, 2017

According to American Made, there is such a thing as too much money. It arrives when you've run out of places to store it. The bank vaults in town are filled with your cash. The closet is loaded with gold. There are holes in the backyard, filled with bags of cash, and at a certain point, you dig a hole for a new bag, only to discover that there's already a bag in the hole.

There is not, though, such a thing as too much excitement. The film may feature the drug trade, but the real addiction for Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is flying a plane into gunfire, trying to take off from a short runway that has plenty of destroyed planes at the end of it, evading DEA agents, and simultaneously working for the CIA and the most profitable—and dangerous—drug cartel in Central America—all while at least three federal agencies and the state police are preparing cases against him.

Barry takes all of this with a cocky little grin, because he's betting on the notion that, if a guy has enough fingers in enough pies, that man is unlikely to starve. If he has a finger pulled out of one pie, surely the people with a stake in the other ones will cover for him, even if the enterprises are opposed to each in a political, financial, or any other way. It's a decent theory, but it's one that's only testable in practice, which means the big question of the film is whether or not there is such a thing as too much confidence.

There really was a Barry Seal, who smuggled drugs for the Medellín Cartel out of Colombia and, later, Nicaragua. The film, written by Gary Spinelli, takes the man, as well as the basic layout of his activities, and loads it with the stuff of urban legend.

The main one is that Seal was an unofficially contracted employee of the CIA, which definitely had their own fingers in a whole lot of pies in Central America in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the film's story is set. It's one of those legends that probably can't be proven definitively, but it's also one that can't be disproved, either. That's the convenient aspect of making an intelligence agency that depends on secrecy a central part of an urban legend: Of course there wouldn't be any evidence. Do you think they would keep those damning records on file—especially when nobody knew about this stuff in the first place?

The film isn't interested in conspiracies (although, in addition to the CIA's shenanigans, there are a few recognizable names thrown around) or politics (Its dissection of the extension of the Cold War into Central American politics is so simple that it's summarized in a short animation). One could take the film as an easy condemnation of the false promise of the American Dream, and Spinelli and director Doug Liman definitely lean into that concept with the story's twist on the small-business-man-makes-good angle (The title is kind of a giveaway, too). You could look at it that way, except you would have to completely overlook the fact that the film's version of Barry isn't doing it for the money or an increased status in society. They're nice perks, naturally, but that money does cause more problems than it's worth.

No, the key seems to be an early scene, in which Barry, working as a commercial airliner pilot for one the major airlines, finds himself bored in the cockpit. He turns off the autopilot, begins fidgeting with the rudder, and, when none of the sleeping passengers seems to notice the movement, takes the plane into a sudden dive. The physical thrill is obvious, but there's also the thrill of having this much control over the lives of all of these people.

Barry could have stuck with the job, but he quits after Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a mysterious CIA agent, offers the ace pilot a change to put his skills to use in order to serve his country. The job is to fly a twin-engine plane over and taking photographs of communist rebel bases in various Central American countries. While in Colombia, Jorge (Alejandro Edda), one of the heads of the Medellín Cartel, offers Barry a job smuggling cocaine into the U.S. The CIA doesn't pay much, and with a growing family with his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), Barry takes up the cartel leaders on their offer.

The excitement is obvious, especially for a man like Barry, who lives for feats of derring-do and having control over seemingly unstable and impossible situations. Most of the film is about Barry's rise—obtaining an abandoned airport from the CIA, starting a few shell companies to launder his money, hiring other pilots to help with his illegal and CIA-sanctioned trades, which eventually includes flying automatic rifles to the Contras of Nicaragua. It could be dull, routine, and expository stuff, but Liman keeps the film's focus on Barry's arc, while also offering some impressive aerial stunts and maneuvers in the process.

The arc is routine, as the character moves from thrill-seeking of the physical variety to seeing how far he can take his multi-level scheme—from confidence to arrogance. Cruise's performance here is decidedly and admirably calm. He's not playing a hothead who gets off on this stuff. There's something analytical about Cruise's Barry, as if he's a guy who's fascinated by testing the water, constantly looking for new ways in, and, eventually, determining his ways out before anyone else. It's a solid performance, and that helps to make American Made more a study of this character than an events-based biography.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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