“American Made” has a story to tell. It’s quite a story — so long as you don’t ask too many questions and you’re game to laugh your way through its gamboling plot.
The film stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a Trans World Airlines pilot who becomes embroiled in the early stage drug war politics of the Iran-contra affair. Initially tapped by the CIA to run airborne reconnaissance over Central America, Seal quickly allows his business acumen — or greed, take your pick — to co-opt his patriotism. Before long, Seal finds himself entangled in a web spun by the Medellín cartel, the Nicaraguan Contras and even the White House.
The story is more than a little surreal, but “American Made” wants you to know that it is in on the joke. Director Doug Liman’s father, Arthur, served as chief counsel to the Senate in its investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair. Liman lived through the scandal, but he seems wholly uninterested in making the kind of conspiratorial thriller that has typically memorialized the post-Watergate era. It’s more “Wolf of Wall Street” than “Three Days of the Condor.”
Buoyed by Cruise’s effervescent smile and charming roguishness, Liman’s protagonist offers an affable and wonky lens through which to view an otherwise serious and bloody international affair. Barry Seal moves between his various worlds like a clueless Danny Ocean, with the United States’ Central American interventions offering a profitable stage for his farcical caper.
“American Made” largely turns a blind eye to corruption when dealing with both the Colombian drug lords and intelligence bureaucrats. Indeed, the film appears more concerned with the trappings of wealth and hedonism than it is with political cynicism. Barry Seal makes such a wild profit running drugs and guns that he can’t launder the money flooding into his Arkansas home fast enough. He uses closets, drawers, backyard pits and even the entire vault in his town’s lone bank for storage, but even those are not enough. Once a symbol of his financial freedom and daring spirit, Seal’s money becomes a crushing weight, haunting him at every turn.
Otherwise, “American Made” asks you not to dig too deep. The film offers sparing details regarding the political nature of the scandal. When it indulges in history, it does so through Schoolhouse Rock-style animated vignettes backed by Cruise’s silly narration. Illegality offers a particularly productive site for comedy, as plane crashes caused by cocaine consumption and government drug raids receive an absurdist treatment when seen through Cruise’s permanently wide eyes.
“American Made” aims for laughs over serious reflection, but it also evokes nostalgia. Cinematographer César Charlone’s camera adopts a faded and grainy cinematic quality that feels like memory — unfocused, erratic and ephemeral. It suggests an era during which U.S clandestine operations were more ad hoc and campy and thus prone to individual ‘entrepreneurial’ exploits. It’s not dissimilar to the appeal of a Bond flick, minus the gadgets and Tory politicking. The lone man operating covertly on the world stage, particularly one that allows for reckless improvisation and self-governance, is a relic. It’s also an attractive relic for modern audiences. A more serious movie would have dispensed with such sentimentality and wish fulfillment. A more serious movie also wouldn’t have been as fun. When Cruise or Connery winks at you after cheating death once again, it’s an alluring reminder that life is just a game in the right hands. Aren’t moments like that the reason we go to the movies?