American Made is an appropriate title for the new Doug Liman’s new biopic of Barry Seal, the TWA pilot turned drug smuggler turned informant. It’s a very American story of greed, power, and corruption told in a very American way, with rose-colored glasses and a charming smile, in this case Tom Cruise’s. It’s a film that calls to mind two expressions, one new, and one ancient: “Only in America,” and “It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.”
It’s the late 70’s and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a bored TWA pilot, who catches the eye of Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) a CIA spook who wants Barry to run recon missions over South America. Excited by the exotic work, but tight on cash, Barry falls in with three Columbians named Jorge, Carolos, and Pablo whose last name just happens to be Escobar. These three men who would eventually form the powerful Medellín Drug Cartel need Barry to smuggle heroin into the United States. Then the CIA moves Barry and his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) to Mena, Arkansas where things get a little out of control. After running guns for the CIA, drugs for the cartel, and fighters for the Contras, Barry finds himself running low on gas and out of luck.
Cruise and Liman clearly got along well on their first collaboration, Edge of Tomorrow: Live Die Repeat. They have two more projects in the pipeline, and after American Made, I’m excited to see them. The two films make interesting bedfellows and are as different as they are similar. They both walk a thin line between comedy and drama, Live Die Repeat more successfully, and both films are built upon Tom Cruise’s easy charm, which Liman uses to great effect. Every once in a while a film comes along that reminds us why movie stars exist, and American Made is one of those films. It simply wouldn’t work without Cruise who infuses Barry with a manic energy that is both dangerous and tragic.
The film’s script by Gary Spinelli is an admirable if muddled attempt to distill Seal’s life into a brisk film. The film’s tension never lets up and near the end of the second act you can feel the film start to stumble over its own feet. With so much happening so quickly, moments rarely feel as emotionally weighted as they should. The result is a film that packs an enormous amount into 110 minutes, it somehow still feels padded.
American Made is Doug Liman’s first period piece and he takes and interesting approach. Cinematographer César Charlone’s camera is drenched in 1970s inspired grain and saturation. The whole film looks like it was shot on stock from the 70’s. Andrew Mondshein’s editing, on the other hand, is frenetic and modern. Liman doesn’t seem interested in you forgetting the fact that this is a story being told to you. And maybe that’s the point. The final stage in every great American story is reinvention. For a chubby TWA pilot turned smuggler to be reincarnated on the big screen as Tom Cruise, you could do a lot worse.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Doug Liman’s American Made is a fun, compelling thriller that is as watchable as it is unbelievable, even if it never quite nails down its tone. It attempts to thread the needle between lighthearted fun and dark moral ambiguity and the result is muddled at times. It’s a tonal dissonance that could have undone the film were it not buoyed by excellent performances by Tom Cruise, ever the movie star, and Domhnall Gleeson who is swiftly becoming one of the most interesting actors working today. Not everything in American Made works, but what does is terribly fun to watch. It’s a flawed film that makes some big swings and plays it fast and loose with historical fact. In other words, it lives up to its namesake.