American Made is based on a true story, and it’s crucial that the film establishes this from its earliest moments onward, as it’s the sort of story that would constitute the makings of a great double-dealing espionage thriller if only it hadn’t happened in reality. In 1978, Jimmy Carter has delivered his famous “crisis of confidence” speech, and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a TWA pilot exhausting himself on second-tier routes. Barry is a family man, but he’s hardly above creating some false turbulence just to keep himself sharp and his passengers on their toes. When he returns home to Baton Rouge, he’s so burnt out that he’s not even able to take care of his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), or spend much time with their kids. Then it’s right back to the skies, Barry a wage slave of a different, more successful variety.
At least that’s the argument that director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli lay out with American Made, a film so positively awash in nihilistic sarcasm that it even flows out of the title. Barry is the kind of gifted pilot who draws attention to himself, and soon he’s drawn the attention of a CIA operative supposedly named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who knows exactly which of Barry’s buttons to push. He flatters Barry’s ego, offers Barry a great deal more money, and before long Barry is flying a state-of-the-art reconnaissance jet on photography missions throughout South America. He even picks up a nice sidelining gig delivering CIA payments to General Noriega.
But Barry’s increasing prominence in the region as “the gringo who always delivers” eventually draws the kind of attention that few would want: that of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), and the rest of what was rapidly growing into the Medellin Cartel. Soon Barry is tasked with flying for the CIA while also making return trip pickups in Colombia for the cartel to move its product into the United States, smuggling Nicaraguan contra soldiers into the country for clandestine military training, and eventually, running guns out of the U.S. to sustain foreign warfare.
When the cocaine-based part of Barry’s business starts to draw DEA attention, Barry moves his family to Mena, Arkansas, where the CIA gives him a massive plot of land in exchange for the use of some of it for the aforementioned training. There, Barry builds a small economy unto himself, the local sheriff (Jesse Plemons) begins to take notice, and American Made begins to approach its true purpose: acerbic satire about the realities of modern American “success stories.” After all, Barry ends up loaded for his frequently life-threatening troubles; he covers Lucy in jewelry, his home in the most garishly chic designs of the time, and he ends up making so much money that before long the Seal family can’t even launder it quickly enough.
But all is hardly well in the life of Barry Seal; after all, double-dealing against one of the world’s most powerful governments and its most dangerous drug lords is not a story that would seem to end particularly well. To that end, Liman uses a series of fast-forwarded VHS missives from Barry circa late 1985 to establish a potent sense of foreboding, as the film at large bounces between nations and loyalties and off-key sex scenes with gleeful abandon. There’s more than a little bit of Scorsese’s verve to be found in Liman’s direction throughout the film, in the archly funny editorial choices and in its doomed criminal’s tale alike, but where his films usually cycle around to indicting their protagonists for their sins at some point or another, American Made often plays less like satire than it clearly intends. There’s something oddly celebratory about Liman’s rendering of Barry as a gee-shucks bastard who lucked into a different kind of dream job, one that plays to the film’s ultimate detriment.
A fair deal of that impression has to do with Cruise’s performance. Their last pairing, Edge of Tomorrow, cast the actor slightly against type as a coward in the guise of a dutiful military man, and here Liman tasks Cruise with bringing his toothy charm to a real-life opportunist who exploited multiple presidencies and international conflicts for personal gain. Yet the film is so noncommittal about the evident falsehoods of Barry’s “doing it for my family” act and the ugly political underpinnings of his dealings that it often sidesteps them entirely, and Cruise never finds those notes in his turn. The flight sequences invoke another flight-based star vehicle upon which the actor made his name in the late ‘80s, and it’s that cocksure charm that Cruise brings to the role, instead of any notes that might define him as anything less than a morally wayward hero who finds himself in over his head thanks to the misdeeds of others. He’s a consummate fount of charisma, even as he endangers everyone around him, and American Made frequently seems to mistake him for a complicated antihero.
This isn’t to say that the film’s jabs aren’t entirely successful at points. The era-specific affectations, paired with César Charlone’s gritty handheld photography, go a long way in marrying the tackiest aesthetics of the early ‘80s with a genuine sense of danger. One setpiece involving an emergency landing on a suburban street leads to the sublime image of Cruise throwing stacks of hundreds at perplexed onlookers while emerging from a plane in a cloud of cocaine, and there’s a pop to many of Barry’s terse exchanges that highlight Cruise’s consistently underused knack for back-and-forth patter. Liman keeps the film moving at a clip, and even if its breakneck pacing is maintained at the expense of any real narrative or character depth, American Made nevertheless attempts to cover its tracks with sheer rapid momentum.
But much like its protagonist, the film’s deficiencies are exposed in sharper relief as soon as it takes a beat or two to land on the ground and slow down. While Wright has a few strong moments as the embattled Lucy, she’s barely granted a character; Lucy exists as Barry’s comely raison d’etre and little more in the film’s estimation, a bit of Scorsese influence that was likely best left alone. Plemons is underserved in a role virtually any character actor could’ve stepped into, and given their importance to the story, the Medellin bosses are assumed to be menacing because of audience recognition instead of being imbued with any genuine sense of menace. American Made speaks in shorthand, in its visual and narrative language alike, and it’s less the ribald ripped-from-the-headlines commentary it aspires to be than a cynically breezy take on an ugly, unduly buried chapter of American history.