By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
American Made centers on Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a hardworking American family man, working as a pilot for TWA in the 70s and supporting his wife (Sarah Wright) in their Louisiana home. But he’s bored, and he’s not making enough money. Secretly, Seal had been helping smuggle cigars, which invites CIA agent “Schafer” into his life. Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), in turn, invites Seal into the the world of the CIA, and tasks him with quitting his job at TWA. Instead, Seal would be flying a two-engine plane over Central and South America to take pictures of the insurgent camps there to gain an edge over Russia in the Cold War.
Reconnaissance soon turns into information courier work, where Seal hands off money in exchange for information on the Communists in the area. The cartels, including Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), eventually invite Seal to help traffic cocaine back across the border into America, giving Seal the “raise” Schafer denied him.
This lands Seal in hot water with the Colombian police, so Schafer, leering like a devil holding a contract, relocates the Seals to Alabama, where Seal begins to ship weapons to the Contras on behalf of the US government to combat the Communists. The Contras, having no interest in fighting, turn their weapons over to the cartel. Seal continues to run drugs, reconnaissance, and other contraband across multiple borders, having a big hand in the empowerment of the largest cartel in history and in the process earning literally more money than he knows what to do with.
Yeah, it gets wild.
Doug Liman is a director that has been reliably putting out entertaining movies for a while, but American Made feels like a class all its own, with a number of unique approaches to tone, editing, and storytelling that come together in a deeply satisfying way. This movie is just fun, in a very easygoing, free-wheeling manner that gives the impression that it’s probably playing it fast and loose with the facts, but doesn’t care which events actually occurred and doesn’t expect you to, either.
Tom Cruise is a large part of this, with his trademark charisma that attracts some and unsettles others. He lends that same fingers-crossed-behind-my-back untrustworthiness to his narrative interludes that makes him such a distinct celebrity in real life, and marries it to a man who lets his push for the American Dream start to drag him behind it when it gains too much momentum. Seal’s confidence frequently shines through, even when he needs to be quick on his feet when law enforcement falls in step with his strategy.
The movie highlights Seal’s scrappy methods with an unruly, documentary-style handheld camera. It frequently segues into expository segments with Seal talking into a camera, and adds hand-written text to punctuate changes in setting and time. Liman treats all of these like a set of tools, things that work as narrative devices in the moment but don’t force the film to adhere to a blueprint.
Gleeson, too, is terrific as Schafer, acting as the devil on Seal’s soldier and pushing him further into trouble without helping him get out. He’s the face of the CIA for American Made and, by extension, the government. This was a tumultuous time in American history, and the movie treats it with a bit of a shrug. This is a gamble that pays off, as decades later it’s hard to believe it actually even happened.
Most of what American Made does right is its flippant treatment of these events, from the borderline incompetent law enforcement, to the way everything tends to work itself out. In a lesser film, this would have felt lazy. But Liman tackles it with unwavering confidence and a commitment to giving a wild story a well-earned personality. It’s a glimpse of the spectacular corruption of the CIA and US Government during that time period, filtered through a cheeky, darkly comedic lens with energy and style to spare. It’s a wonderful surprise and a great fall flick.
American Made (2017) Movie Drinking Game
Do a Shot: for every jump in time
Take a Drink: each time the movie raises the stakes
Take a Drink: for every time Seal starts narrating again
Do a Shot: for every narrow escape
Take a Drink: whenever Seal finds a new way to hide his money