You have to wonder whether Tom Cruise intends ever to grow up and embrace roles that will force him to set aside the youthful bravado that earned him stardom in “Risky Business” and “Top Gun” and that he’s maintained as his essential character trait ever since, even in a debacle like “The Mummy.” He might actually be an actor able to suppress the toothy grin and boyish charm and deliver a real performance in a serious drama, but his Jack Reacher potboilers haven’t proven that, and “American Made” doesn’t either. Doug Liman’s film aims to be a satire on the folly of American policy in Latin America during the seventies and eighties, but though done up with lots of visual razzmatazz, it’s much less cutting than it ought to be, coming off as just another Cruise vehicle and dependant largely on his persona top carry the day. He manages to do so, but the picture could have been much more than it is.
It’s based on the checkered career of Barry Seal, a pilot who got involved with both the Medellin drug cartel, transporting their product to the United States, and with the American intelligence community, which used him in its clandestine program to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua by arming and training the so-called contras. The double game eventually got him killed. (Seal was a minor figure in Brad Furman’s “The Infiltrator” last year, meeting his end in a different fashion than he actually did, as shown here.)
A great many allegations have been concocted about Seal’s earlier activities by conspiracy theorists, but Gary Spinelli’s script, based on several book about the guy, ignores them, beginning only in 1978 when he is a TWA pilot bored with the routine of his job. Caught smuggling Cuban cigars, he’s recruited by a CIA agent calling himself Schaefer (Domhnall Gleeson) to fly risky missions over various Latin American countries in a super-fast spy plane to photograph rebel groups in their camps, though he conceals the fact from his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who keeps the home fires burning.
His CIA-sponsored flights bring him—unbeknownst to his handler—to the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), up-and-coming drug lords who insist that he add a lucrative sideline to his operations by taking bales of their cocaine to the U.S. Though he has doubts about the short runway they insist on his using and refuses to fly the coke to Miami as they wish, he devises a workable plan to drop it off in Louisiana and relies on his guts to make it into the air. The deliveries become a regular part of his itinerary, making him a rich man without Schaefer being any the wiser.
Both sides of Seal’s operation grow exponentially, and though setbacks involving the DEA necessitate his moving with his family to a small town in Arkansas, before long he owns a large tract of land as well as an airport, hosts a contra training camp run by the CIA, hires a squadron of oddball fliers, and is so flush with cash that he literally runs out of room to put it all. Unfortunately, the arrival of his careless, greedy brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones) throws a monkey wrench into things, and leads to his being dragged into the Reagan White House’s efforts to tie the Sandinista regime to the drug trade as an informant against the cartel—which ultimately not only brings about his downfall but seals his fate.
One could never accuse Cruise of holding back here—he invests Seal with every bit of energy he can muster, rushing about almost maniacally as he flashes that trademark cocky smile and rattles off reams of smooth talk, even under the worst pressure. The truth is that in his hands Seal comes across as little more than an older version of Pete Mitchell, but that’s precisely why a great many viewers will take to him.
Nor does Liman hold back: he and cinematographer Cesar Charlone (“City of God”) serve up a dazzling array of images, shot in a hyperkinetic hand-held style that’s further accentuated by the furious editing of Andrew Mondshein. To tie the escalating complications of the plot together in a way the audience can understand, Liman resorts to various devices—crudely-drawn animated inserts, montages of archival news footage, and excerpts from a video “confession” prepared by Cruise’s Seal over his last days, which also allows Cruise’s flyboy to impress upon us how increasingly wild and crazy the whole chain of events became.
The approach gives the convoluted plot some shape while preserving the messiness essential to Seal’s habit of escaping trouble by coming up with some outlandish excuse or absurd seat-of-the-pants decision. The most outrageous example comes when he’s seemingly trapped in mid-flight by a couple of DEA planes, only to choose to make a sudden landing in a suburban neighborhood; it would be an understatement to say that the episode defies credibility.
That points to the fundamental weakness of “American Made”: as satire it seems shallow, even juvenile, more buffoonish clown show than edgy dissection of real events. It’s not simply that the characters are all caricatures—that’s part of the natural process of satire, after all. It’s that they’re not sharply-drawn caricatures; compare Gleeson’s dull Schaefer to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson, for instance, and the contrast is obvious. The targets in the Reagan Administration offered far more scope for skewering than they receive here. Moreover, there’s too much easy condescension to the way Lucy, J.B. and other southerners are portrayed; redneck humor is like shooting fish in a barrel. One could, of course, also grumble that giving a semi-heroic cast to a guy who made hay ferrying cocaine into the country isn’t such a good idea. But that would undo a long history of cinema’s glorifying the antihero.
Though this over-the-top Cruise-Liman combination is sporadically amusing, its raucousness often comes across as desperately frantic rather than satirically telling. Frankly, the machinations surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal deserve something more than a jokey send-up. For what it is, though, it earns a marginal pass.