“American Made” is a textbook case of expert movie-making. With top-notch direction, acting, dialog, story, editing, music and production design, the film fires firmly on all cylinders.
Thematically, however, it will leave you in a state of near-despair about America’s apparent “ends-justify-the-means” approach to foreign policy.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing -- unless maybe they tinkered with the facts.
Tom Cruise plays real-life pilot Barry Seal, who in the late 1970s left TWA to run drugs for the Medellin Cartel. Eventually nabbed by the DEA, Seal plea-bargained by offering to return to Central America for incriminating photos that would impugn the Sandinista government -- which the Reagan administration was fighting at the time.
Those are the facts as I can piece them together without having read any of the books on this fiasco. The movie, however, has Seal drafted by the CIA much earlier, acting as a sort of double-agent as he runs guns to the Contras and returns with countless kilos of cocaine, which is then dumped over Louisiana for stateside cartel salesmen. By this account, the U.S. government is sponsoring the import of narcotics.
I could find no record of this earlier subterfuge online; but it makes for galvanic cinema, with the charismatic Cruise hustling in his handsome plane through Honduras, Guatemala, Panama and Colombia. Against a rollicking backdrop of the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out,” Seal hobnobs with the likes of Manuel Noriega and Pablo Escobar -- not to mention his smarmy agency contact, very nicely played by the ubiquitous Domnhall Gleeson (“The Revenant,” “mother!”, “True Grit,” “Ex Machina,” “Brooklyn,” etc.).
(Gleeson also stars in the forthcoming “Last Jedi,” “Peter Rabbit” and “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” in which he plays Winnie-the-Pooh creator A. A. Milne.)
Cruise is marvelous, somehow enlisting our grave concern for the safety and success of a man who obviously has no public morals (though he does care about his family) -- and who eventually piles up so much cash that mere physical storage of his wads becomes a near-crisis.
And according to the movie’s credits, the audacious 55-year-old Cruise did his own stunt flying.
He and Gleeson get able support from a host of lesser-knowns, highlighted by Sarah Wright as Seal’s long-suffering wife, Lucy; Alejandro Edda as drug lord Jorge Ochoa; and Caleb Landry Jones as Lucy’s loser brother, who is trouble from the moment he steps onscreen.
Undergirding all this is a baroque, guitar-driven, seventies-style score, plus many great tunes from that era -- along with fine period detail, which spills over into the opening and closing credits as well.
The film is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and it seasons the zesty narrative with freeze-frames, hand-written title cards, cartoonish maps and home-made video of Seal discussing his wild and woolly career.
Since we have a good idea what Seal’s fate will be, this is not entirely a happy film -- and I strongly suspect the writers weren’t justified in savaging the CIA as they do early on.
Nevertheless, “American Made” is an awful lot of fun.
directed by Doug Liman
Run time: 115 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated R for language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity