American Made and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Doug Liman
Hollywood? We need to talk. I know that you love to make movies about people (usually white dudes) who catch a lucky break or have one useful skill that pays off which launches them into fame, fortune, and eventual ruin, but I think it’s time to stop. Look, Wolf of Wall Street was wonderful and so was that Nicolas Cage movie from 2005, but these are starting to get stale and repetitive; especially with this film that looks so paint by numbers and generic that even Tom Cruise can barely seem to bring anything to the material. Still, bad trailers and a tired premise don’t ALWAYS spell doom for a movie, and Tom Cruise can really be THAT good in a movie so as to keep it engaging even if everything else is working against it. Does this film manage to avoid the pitfalls that so many films before it have fallen into, or are we scraping the bottom of the barrel to find just ONE more interesting story about a dude who found an odd way to strike it rich? Let’s find out!!
The movie is supposedly based on the real life story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who was your run of the mill airline pilot who was making some extra cash by smuggling in Cuban Cigars. His actions don’t go unnoticed by the mysterious Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is a CIA agent looking to make his mark and believes he has found it in this pilot that he easily convinces to quit his job and start working for the US Government. His patriotic duty turns out to be driving a plane with a camera on it so he can take pictures of Central American communist freedom fighters that the US has an interest in repressing and these pictures prove to be invaluable to that cause. Eventually he gets bigger missions such as delivering intel to Manuel Noriega, running guns to the Contra fighters in Nicaragua, and even running cocaine for the cartel which isn’t QUITE what the CIA had in mind but they certainly aren’t gonna stop him from doing it. Of course, with the CIA apparently doing all this on the down low, Barry not only starts catching the ire of other government organizations like the FBI and DEA, but also runs the risk of losing his sweetheart deals with the Cartel which is led up by Pablo Escobar (Maunicio Mejia). Throw in some family drama with his wife (Sarah Wright) who is kept in the dark for a lot of this and his brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones) who’s a total fuck up that knows too much and you’re looking at a powder keg ready to explode right in Barry’s handsome face! Will Barry find a way to keep the balancing act going indefinitely? How far will the US Government under Reagan go to get what it wants and what will that eventually mean for Barry? Wait, is this what the Top Gun sequel will be about!?
I’ve seen way too many of these rags to riches MAN IS ONE TRUE ENEMY biopics in the last few years that the prospect of seeing another one felt like the biggest chore imaginable, but while this movie DOES make a terrible first impression, there is something at least mildly entertaining about Tom Cruise’s tale of flying planes for the US government (or at least one part of it that wasn’t talking to the rest) and the overall nightmare that was the Reagan Administration. It certainly didn’t need to be over two hours and it lacks any semblance of focus for the majority of its runtime, but Tom Cruise is a solid actor and the brief snapshot of history that the film is about is admittedly an area of US History that I am woefully uneducated on in any real depth. Then again, BECAUSE of that I can’t really tell you how “fair” or “accurate” the portrayals are in this movie (something tells me that the REAL Barry Seal wasn’t as clueless as the movie indicates he was) but I ended up enjoying myself; at least a little bit.
If this movie has one problem other than being obnoxiously bland, it’s the overall lack of focus and stakes. This is most prominently displayed in the first act where we just SPEED through Tom Cruise’s life (he has two kids in the span of a single montage) and his decision to become a government pilot without any real setup for his character or even a firm grasp on what his role in the US government is. Yes, he’s conscripted by a CIA agent, but other than the threat of death which admittedly is rather small throughout, I simply did not know how much “danger” he was in of getting caught or going to jail. Maybe that’s part of the point as the CIA was clearly going rouge in the sense that other US departments like the FBI the DEA were not brought in on Tom Cruise’s “patriotic endeavors”, but… well what’s the worst that could happen? Okay, I found out EVENTUALLY what was going to happen, but for most of this movie I legitimately didn’t know if he was even gonna get a citation or a parking ticket for hauling cocaine, guns, and revolutionary fighters over the US border. If the movie took more chances to address the audience and assure us that not only is this all true but showed us in more detail how it worked, then there might have been something there. Instead I just couldn’t find a real reason to care about what was going on considering how loosely the whole situation was presented to us.
This is also where I feel there’s more than a little revisionist in regards to Seal’s character. I didn’t know the guy so I can’t say whether he was “nice” or if he was legitimately a pawn of forces larger than himself, but the movie never really addresses any of the consequences of his actions. We don’t get to see what the Contras do to the people of Nicaragua and for that matter there’s never a mention of how cocaine (and the brutal drug policies enforced by the same government turning a blind eye to Seal’s actions) had such a devastating effect on the country throughout the eighties. Really, the movie never says one bad thing about the guy other than being rather shallow and possibly being a bit naïve in how he dealt with very powerful people. He may not have been the one orchestrating the drug trade or the US’s intervention into Nicaragua, but he was certainly willing to facilitate those “lofty” goals for the right price.
If there’s one solid element throughout, it’s Tom Cruise who is front and center in this movie at all times and manages to give a solid performance. He’s appropriately awkward and self-effacing in this (lest his immortal godhood shine too brightly in this supposed biopic of a mere mortal) and the times that movie slows down enough for a scene to REALLY play out allows him some breathing room to expand the character and show us what made him at least useful for the people who required his services. Everyone else is pretty much just background noise; especially his wife played by Sarah Wright who’s barely in this film and is only put in front of the camera whenever they have to do a cliché like THE BIG FIGHT or the I’LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU moment. Throughout this movie I kept thinking back to films that did this kind of idea better; particularly Lord of War which really was a solid film that seems to be at least SOMEWHAT an inspiration here (even down to the way the authorities are evaded and how our main character reacts to a surprise death). It does share a few flaws with this film as Bridget Moynahan isn’t THAT much more engaging in that film as Sarah Wright was in this, but we at least got to KNOW Nicolas Cage throughout that film while Tom Cruise still feels like somewhat of a mystery. Not in a GOOD way that keeps you engaged with what his character will do next, but rather in what drives him to do what he does other than straight up money which is a pretty boring motivation to have. Hell, I’m not even sure if he had an endgame considering he clearly had enough money to retire off of pretty early into the film, so what else was going on in his head other than just doing it just to do it? We need SOMETHING to grab onto if this movie is to engage us in any way, but it never gets to that point and so what should have been an exciting look into the messed up stuff the US Government was doing in the eighties turns out to be an utter slog to sit through; especially at nearly two hours.
Other than that, I’m kind of at a loss to even say much more about the film. I’ve seen way too many of these damn TRUE STORY ABOUT A DUDE GETTING RICH movies like Gold, War Dogs, or even The Big Short, and while this is far from the worst of them (*cough* Masterminds *cough*), it’s just too bland to really leave an impact. The Big Short managed to have REALLY compelling characters played by phenomenal actors, Gold felt really genuine with a shameless performance from Matthew McConaughey, and even War Dogs was somewhat memorable for a rather dark performance from Jonah Hill. Each of these by the way ALSO did a better job of explaining the scope and scale of their rags to riches story which this particular film failed to do. I really don’t recommend seeing it simply because of how little of an impact it left on me (I’m already barely able recall anything from it), but if you find yourself catching it on TV or watching it on Netflix… sure. I didn’t find it offensively bad or even poorly made to any significant degree (other than the pacing), but there’s really nothing to say about it other than… meh.