Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, E. Roger Mitchell, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays
Runtime: 1 hr 55 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes and Coarse Language)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 31 August 2017
Synopsis: American Made is based on the outrageous (and real) exploits of Barry Seal, a hustler and pilot unexpectedly recruited by the CIA to run one of the biggest covert operations in U.S. history.
If you had not known that the daredevil TWA pilot turned part-time CIA gun-runner and full-time Colombian drug smuggler Barry Seal was a real-life character, you might have thought that he was simply a classic Tom Cruise star showcase. Oh yes, in Seal’s larger-than-life adventures, we get a glimpse of the Tom Cruise we fell in love with in ‘Top Gun’, complete with aviator sunglasses and megawatt smile in the cockpit of a hi-spec jet. Coming off this summer’s dud ‘The Mummy’, this lively romp based on Barry’s larger-than-life true story finds Cruise in fine form; in fact, we’d even go so far as to say that Cruise makes the movie and probably the only reason why you need to see it.
Like the recent fact-based ‘War Dogs’ or ‘American Hustle’, ‘American Made’ isn’t so much concerned with historical accuracy as delivering a fast, fun and believably absurd comedy satire. In quick succession therefore, Barry goes from a bored TWA pilot smuggling Cuban cigars into the US from Canada and Mexico, to flying recon missions over Central America spying on communist rabble-rousers, to transporting cocaine from Colombia to the US for the Medellin cartel, to delivering case-loads of requisitioned AK-47s to the CIA-backed militias fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and last but not least to exposing senior officials within the Nicaraguan government for peddling drugs. Along the way, Barry narrates his own story in voiceover-flashback ‘Goodfellas’ style, acting occasionally as the audience surrogate to reflect our bemusement, bewilderment and even disbelief at the series of events.
By structuring the entire film from Barry’s point of view, ‘American Made’ cannot but be a character study, so it is somewhat disappointing to realise at the end of it all that Seal is simply meant to be a fundamentally decent guy whose luck and good graces ultimately ran out – hence the several domestic scenes of Barry playing the loyal and loving husband to wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and his children. At best, it paints Barry as an ambitious, quick-witted and entrepreneurial fellow; at worst, it portrays him as overconfident, egotistical and whose undoing was an inevitable consequence of his own hubris. The surrounding characters hardly matter at all next to Barry – not even Pablo Escobar or his notable associate Jorge Ochoa – which only makes it even more obvious that how this is but a shallow, if one-note, depiction that becomes less and less interesting as the movie goes on, notwithstanding Cruise’s sheer undimmed charisma.
As director, Doug Liman (whose father investigated the Iran-Contra affair) provides plenty of historical context. Not only do we get to see old news footage of not one but two US presidents (if you’re interested to know, that’s Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan), there are also breezy animated inserts that take playful jabs at the interventionist politics of Reagan’s administration; even so, there is no attempt to turn this into political commentary at any juncture. Nor for that matter does Liman intend it to be a critique of the CIA and their undeniably questionable methods; for the most part, the spy organisation is represented only in the form of greasy junior operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) and kept on the periphery while Barry conducts his other and much more salacious business.
And that is truly a pity, for ‘American Made’ therefore remains a glossy, but superficial, piece of filmmaking that is diverting while it lasts but instantly forgettable once it ends. It doesn’t say anything about Reagan’s absurdist foreign policy; it doesn’t say anything about the institutional corruption that allowed such a preposterous scenario to happen; and lastly, it says only that Barry was a good opportunist whose questionably achieved American dream eventually soured. So like we said at the start, the best thing it has going for it is Cruise, who is its charmed and immensely watchable centre. It is unmistakably American made all right, but one had hoped that could have stood for a lot more than something this lightweight and even inconsequential.
(Tom Cruise has plenty of charm and charisma to spare, but not quite enough to disguise this lie of a lightweight, shallow and even inconsequential character study)
Review by Gabriel Chong