“American Made” gives Tom Cruise his “Goodfellas,” and brings Doug “The Bourne Identity” Liman back from the directing wilderness.
In Barry Seal, Cruise has a real person to bite into, a drawling, unquestioning, self-delusional anti-hero who parlayed gonzo flying skills to an integral role in an anti-communist crusade that devolved into an epic American debacle of The Greed Decade.
And he got filthy rich off Medellin drug cartel money in the bargain.
It’s “Blow” and “Air America” and “Narcos” all rolled into one laugh-through-the-grimaces romp, a picture so clever its damning history lesson may be ignored by those who don’t know history, and cannot recognize when it repeats itself.
Gary Spinelli’s script is built around mid-80s self-confessional videotapes in which Seal/Cruise tells all, tracking through his boring Baton Rouge life with his cheerleader-hot Baton Rouge wife (Sarah Wright), a TWA pilot recruited out of endless tedious “Welcome to Bakersfield” hops and into covert photographic work by the CIA, in the person of Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).
As Barry is a tad reckless — “I do tend to lead before I look.” — with the tiny taint of corruption (sneaking Cuban cigars into the country) about him, he buys in.
But what starts with taking photos of insurgent groups in the jungles of Central America quickly morphs into using his CIA-provided twin-engine plane to bring cocaine into Louisiana from Colombia. Rising kingpins Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) make him an offer he cannot refuse.
And as it’s a challenge, to survive overloaded take-offs and murderously trigger-happy employers, one that pays him suitcases full of cash, Seal goes all in.
“I’m just a gringo who always delivers,” he grins.
Of course he grins. He’s Tom Cruise. But he dials down the swagger as the screenplay has Seal recall the thrills, the insanity and “patriotic duty” of it all with barely a trace of irony. As his family grows and his operation expands, sassy wife Lucy does what any made man’s bride would do. She asks few questions until after the fact, complies with affection and doesn’t worry about the mounds of cash buried in the backyard of their airport-side property in rural Arkansas.
“Daddy’s done lost his mind,” she says to comfort their small children on the night of a hasty “We’ve got to get out of town” moment.
Liman makes great use of Cruise’s ability to project physical competence — in the cockpit, making that first CIA delivery of guns to the backwoods thugs, the Contras of Nicaragua (they mug him), not totally panicking whenever the cartel hirelings joke around, threatening his life.
Cruise lets us wonder about Seal’s bravery and smarts. There’s bravado, not heroism, native cunning here, not deep thought. The character is flippant, and the film reflects this — glibly ignoring the consequences of all these off-the-books shenanigans, keeping death (if not the threat of it) mostly off-camera.
It’s a piece of history that many Americans — especially those of “There’s space on Mount Rushmore to put Ronald Reagan!” persuasion — choose to forget. As Seal flies his guns, drugs, Contras triangle for the Reagan White House, Central America and Colombia are permanently destabilized, causing decades of violence and a tidal wave of illegal immigrant refugees.
North America is narcotized — flooded with drugs. Contras slip out of their U.S. training camp and into the U.S. population. And there’s Ron and Nancy, on TV, “Just say no,” they say. And the whole illegal enterprise is crowned with criminal collusion with an enemy of the United States – Iran — the Iran-Contra Scandal. So yeah, let’s put the original criminal dotard Reagan on the dollar bill.
Whatever lessons for today “American Made” might offer, Cruise, Liman and Spinelli never let those consequences and the epic culture of corruption they came from spoil a good joke — dodging the FBI, DEA and ATF, earning a “get out of Arkansas jail free” phone call from Governor Bill Clinton (directed to do it by the Reagan White House).
The details are dazzling, endless “pizza delivery” orders from the CIA and from the cartel on rows of Mena, Arkansas pay-phones, grand parties with the drug lords in Colombia, blessed by their own bought-and-paid-for priests. And the nuts-and-bolts of the work — the precision flying, the money laundering and cash impact on a small town that looks the other way — make other movies and TV shows on the subject seem humorless and tame.
Just don’t think too much about the myriad bills that came due after the conviction (without jail time) of Col. Oliver North, or the staggering body count. That might spoil all the fun.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Credits: Directed by Doug Liman, script by Gary Spinelli. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:55