Movie Review: American Made

Tom Cruise flies again.

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Universal Pictures

One of the pleasures of American Made, the new Tom Cruise movie, is watching an average American – well, an average American scam artist—tying several muscular arms of the U.S. government in knots. It's hard to say how faithful the movie is to the facts of this real-life case (director Doug Liman calls the film "a fun lie based on a true story"), but you have to take your Schadenfreude where you can get it, and here it is.

Having weathered the charisma hit of The Mummy less than four months ago, Cruise is back at full star wattage here, completely engaged and funnier than he's been in years. He's playing Barry Seal, an airline pilot back around the turn of the 1980s. Barry has an illicit sideline—smuggling Cuban cigars in from South American runs—that has brought him to the attention of the authorities. Although not the authorities he might have expected.

Seal is approached in a bar one night by a smirky character named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who knows all about his small-time cigar scam, and proposes to repurpose his criminal inclinations for the benefit of Schafer's company—which turns out to be the CIA. It seems the agency also has an interest in South America ("We're building nations" down there, Schafer says), and it wants Seal to start flying photo-surveillance runs to document all the Soviet-backed commies infesting the subcontinent and stirring up trouble in places like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. This sounds like spying to Seal—can it be legal? "If you're doin' it for the good guys…," Schafer says.

Things get out of hand pretty quickly. Seal soon finds himself playing bagman for CIA client Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino), the Panamanian dictator, who's helping to funnel agency money and arms to Nicaragua's right-wing Contras, who are battling the country's left-wing Sandinista government, which the CIA dislikes a lot. Then, when Seal touches down in Colombia one day, he is greeted by members of the Medellín drug cartel, among them Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía). The narcotraficantes know all about Seal's weekly CIA surveillance flights, and they want him to start taking serious quantities of cocaine back home with him on return trips. Seal agrees to this because (a) these guys will kill him if he doesn't, and (b) he'll be making unreal amounts of money.

The plan works out well. Seal starts dropping bundles of coke down to pickup teams in his home state of Louisiana and air-traffic controllers pay no mind because his plane is flagged as CIA aircraft. Then the agency moves Seal and his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and their kids to tiny Mena, Arkansas, where it has built him a new house and a whole airport—a very private base for a new assignment: flying crates of CIA-provided AK-47s directly to the Nicaraguan Contras. Eventually, everyone sort of throws their hands up and decides the coke should go to the Contras and the AK-47s to the Medellín drug lords. Problems solved!

The story grows ever more complicated, and several timeline switchbacks tend to thicken the narrative murk. But Cruise is funny throughout. His Barry Seal is a sharp, adventurous guy who can't believe his luck (when he has it) and can't help but laugh at the absurd situations in which he becomes enmired. Although he winds up bringing home so much ill-gotten loot that he can't dig holes fast enough to hide it in, his main concern is always his family. (The movie heavily references GoodFellas, and so his wife Lucy, a blue-collar beauty, easily becomes addicted to the closets full of cash that furnish their new filthy-rich lifestyle.)

The picture probably benefits from the fact that both Cruise and director Liman are pilots themselves – the flight scenes have a loose, breezy spirit. And Cruise is well-supported by Gleeson – a study in cheery bureaucratic amorality—and by Jesse Plemons (as a clueless sheriff) and Caleb Landry Jones (great once again as Lucy's dim-bulb brother).

As star vehicles go, American Made is refreshingly unassuming. The movie has a nice, low-key amiability, and it finally puts Tom Cruise back in synch with his talent.

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  1. “The picture probably benefits from the fact that both Cruise and director Liman are pilots themselves”

    Cruise’s experience with cooperating with shadowy and cruelly manipulative NGOs under the nose of the US government probably helped with the realism too.

    1. You mean the movie studios?

        1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

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  2. Cruise in some ways sets my teeth on edge, probably mostly when he gets preachy roles; the hypocrisy of a Scientologist getting preachy rattles my buttons.

    But he’s like Schwarzenegger with his sense of humor; he’s so typecast without one that when it shows up, people vote thumbs down. I thought Kindergartner Cop was a lot of fun, but it bombed and he never showed a sense of humor again.

    I’m looking forward to this.

    1. You’ve missed a lot. LAST ACTION HERO, TRUE LIES, JINGLE ALL THE WAY, JUNIOR. Can’t speak for JUNIOR; I stay away from male regnancy films for much the same reason as I avoid films about straight men in drag; Hollywood thinks the subject is inherantly hilarious, and I disagree. JINGLE ALL THE WAY wasn’t my cuppa either. The other two are hilarious.

      1. Don’t forget Twins.

    2. Cruise was hilarious in Tropic Thunder, too.

      1. “First I need you to step back, and literally FUCK YOUR OWN FACE”

    3. Edge of Tomorrow, the previous Liman-Cruise flick, is great, with a lot of humor from Tommy.

      1. Plus he gets killed over and over in gruesome ways, so Cruise-haters can enjoy it too.

  3. I pray the word goes out that supporting a Cruise movie equals supporting Scientology, and given what’s being revealed in the Remini series a massive uproar and boycott ensue.

    1. If I didn’t go to movies because of the weird beliefs of nitwit actors, I’d never see any at all. I don’t expect actors to make sense. They get paid large sums to emote on cue, which strikes me as a recipe for instability. I’m always a little astonished when one of them – a Reagan or a Heston, say – shows he ISN’T bugfuck.

    2. but the feelz!!!!

  4. Was there any mention of an Arkansas governor with a nose like a vacuum cleaner?

  5. I read this shit in the Iran-Contra Report published by a US congressional comittee. No surprises here.

    1. Eugene Hasenfus really fucked up by not dying in the crash.

  6. I came across some review of this yesterday or the day before

    that other review (maybe it was National Review?…. no….. but the sentiment was similar) got particularly heated about the “fun lie based on a true story” claims. Basically, that almost nothing about the story is actually true. e.g.

    Cruise plays Barry Seal, a real-life Louisiana TWA pilot-turned-drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel who got rich in the 1970s and 1980s before he was eventually busted. Desperate, he volunteered to turn informant for the DEA and earned the wrath of the drug lords after photographing some of them with cameras the CIA had installed on his plane. All of this is shown in American Made, but as far as I can tell, most of the rest is fabricated.

    their argument: “he never worked for the CIA, and the entire coke-n-guns-4-contras stuff is basically an attempt at spinning a cartoon-revisionist-history of the Reagan era for a generation that only has very-fuzzy notion of what actually happened during that period.”

    I don’t think thats any kind of cinematic sin, personally, and expect the movie will be good fun (cruise is good at comedy). wasn’t mel gibson in some similar movie where he was smuggling heroin for CIA in vietnam? I think the problem comes if/when it relies too much on the ‘based on truth’ claim.

    1. (cont’d)…. and i wouldn’t be surprised if there is an emerging fad for making “80s movies” which try to re-tell facts about the decade in ways that conveniently conform to progressive fantasies.

      which wouldn’t really be a new thing either. that’s sort of what movies in the 1980s were often about – re-spinning stories about the 1960s and vietnam for kids my age (teen at the time).

      the difference that concerns me a little (not as much as the nat review types) is that those movies were more about glorifying a decade in which baby boomer lefty ideas were ascendant….

      ….whereas i think the underlying theme of newer-minted 80s movies is far more about trying to shape the history of the reagan era to be something darker, sinister, venal, corrupt – “evil” for lack of a better term – because it has always irritated lefties that the American public looked back so fondly on that decade as an era in which economic conservatism and aggressive anti-communism “Won”, more or less. That rather than simply producing ‘simplified/gilded’ versions of history, which is what most 60s movies were about, that their goal is to rewrite the popular memory of the decade.

      or not. it could just be a fun drugs+guns exercise.

      1. Anyone who has two neuron’s to rub together should know by now that ‘based on a true story’ basically means ‘nothing in this film is true except maybe the names’.

        1. (shrug)

          i think it varies.

          Cinematic license is necessary to tell stories.

          but there’s a difference between chopping shit out and ‘vastly simplifying’ stories (which is the normal par-for-course), and “completely changing the basic facts”, presenting events that never happened, etc..

    2. They’re really mad because it is true, and reflects poorly on the Clinton crime family.

  7. In the trailers Tom Cruise sounds like a closeted gay trying to do a southern accent.

  8. It sounds reminiscent of the fifth season of Archer, also known as “Archer Vice.”

    1. Oh man, classic Cloudbuster!

  9. My movie buddy wanted to see this because I normally avoid the weirdo Cruise a resisted, I relented and I must say it was enjoyable but if it’s a choice between that and lucky Logan watch that instead, it’s better.

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