Doug Liman’s American Made is a wild ride of a movie. It’s also devoid of any kind of meaning or point of view as anything playing in theaters. I’m not sure Liman is really trying to say anything though.
This wouldn’t be a problem normally. But when your movie deals with the covert and hilariously inept dealings of your government you would expect someone in the film to have an opinion about something. The movie is so intent on having a good time it fails to do anything else.
Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a TWA pilot who’s caught by the CIA smuggling Cuban cigars. He is approached by Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) for an assignment. The CIA needs a pilot to take pictures of communist training camps. Barry Seal is just the man for the job.
Tom Cruise reminds us why he’s a movie star. His easy charm and energetic presence imbue Barry with a sort of outsized confidence and personality. He just smiles and assures Agent Schafer that he’s the man who can get it done.
Tom Cruise is in practically every scene of American Made, and by the end, we know no more or less about Barry Seal than what you can get from watching the trailer. American Made never bothers to explain why Agent Schafer chose Barry or what if anything brought Barry to their attention. I find it difficult to believe that Barry Seal was the only pilot smuggling Cuban cigars into the States, TWA or otherwise.
We are told precious little about Agent Schafer himself. We get brief glimpses of his cubicle at CIA. It’s implied that he is promoted and then demoted, but little else. There’s no clue as to whether Schafer believes in his mission.
It’s not long before Barry graduates from taking pictures to helping the CIA launder money for democratic rebellion in South America. Nor is it long before Barry begins smuggling drugs for the Medellin cartel. Soon Barry is smuggling money, drugs, weapons, and actual soldiers to Mena, Arkansas for CIA training.
The CIA buys Barry a huge plot of land and allows Barry to run a small airport. They give him funds, while they look the other way on his drug smuggling. Barry’s own obliviousness is outmatched only by the CIA’s. They seem unconcerned that the weapons meant for the Nicaraguan Contras end up in the hands of the Columbian rebels.
In its own way, American Made is mounting an argument against the modern day conspiracist. Liman and his screenwriter Gary Spinelli show us not the black helicopters or the synchronized covert army of Oliver Stone’s films but people who are greedy, stupid, and bad at their job. So much of conspiracies demand a total reject of the basic reality of 9-5 existence. Here the DEA, ATF, State Troopers, and the FBI all show up at one point to arrest Barry. All of whom had eyes on him, but none of whom told the other about it.
Barry is making so much money he can’t launder it fast enough. His wife Lucy (Sara Wright) is seen opening shoe box after shoe box filled with cash until finally opening one with shoes and sighing. Lucy isn’t fragile and seems content with Barry’s choices. She’s no shrinking violet. Lucy doesn’t roll over for Barry. She exudes a confidence and carelessness that makes us believe she’s a perfect match for Barry. Wright turns in a solid performance for what little she’s given. She’s energetic and holds her own against Cruise.
Spinelli, however, seems wildly uninterested in what makes any of his characters tick. Even though Cruise narrates much of the film, we are given precious little insight into his inner existence. Liman has scenes of Barry confessing on VHS, yet we’re never given a glimpse into what drives Barry Seal.
Liman and his cameraman Cesar Charlone film American Made in a frenetic fashion. The entire film seems to have been shot with handheld cameras and then the film later exposed to give it an aged quality. It’s all well and good, but I found it too distracting at times. The attempt is usually to give the story a documentary feel to it.
American Made is “based on a true story” so I imagine that was their intent. Handheld cameras are fine and indeed sometimes can make you believe you are there in the moment. Great directors such as Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson famously love the ever-moving camera. But with Altman and Anderson, the camera glides smoothly about sometimes we in the audience don’t even realize it’s moving.
Their movies feel more real than American Made without all the frenetic artificiality. We’re never jolted out of the spell the director is casting over us. But Liman and Charlone exhaust us with their zooms, jump cuts, and choppy editing. It takes us out of the moment and reminds us that while it may be based on real events, none of this is real in of itself. It breaks the illusion. Maybe that was the point, to put us in the mindset of Barry Seal’s eternal adrenaline rushed psyche.
Despite all the flaws when American Made works, it works splendidly. There’s a scene where Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Meja), Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yates Escobar) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) show Barry the runway he has to use. Barry is stunned by how short it is. He sees the wreckage of the other failed attempts. The cartel seems wary of his explanations. It’s not the amount of cocaine so much the weight. We are given a glimpse, for the first time, of Barry’s fear.
It’s easy to write off Tom Cruise as overpaid and overrated. But put Cruise in the right movie, like American Made, and you see why he’s considered one of the great movie stars working today. Liman creates the tension, but Cruise helps maintain it with his presence. When Barry’s facade cracks and we see his hesitation, we’re seeing the hesitation of a man who has literally jumped off a skyscraper. So if he’s unsure and scared then holy hell this must be terrifying.
Unfortunately, it adds up to nothing. American Made is empty fun. It’s void of any real political commentary, Barry’s love of the Gipper aside. We never know what Lucy feels, as a mother, wife, or even as a person about Barry being a drug smuggler. There seems to be no regret on Barry’s part either.
This is fine, to some extent, because the movie doesn’t appear to care about these things either. It’s not trying to say or be anything. It’s more concerned with being the best Tom Cruise vehicle it can be. To Liman and Cruise’s credit, it’s one of the better ones we’ve had in awhile. Still, I’m left wondering what was the point of anything. I had fun, and sometimes fun is enough.
But this was based on a true story about a man who was killed by the Medellin cartel. He was the central figure in the Iran-Contra affair, a scandal that rocked the Reagan administration. To use all of that just for fun, no matter how much it may succeed, and say nothing about anything, seems a waste. Movies don’t have to be about anything and maybe American Made felt its duty was to a kind of journalism, only reporting the facts.
If that’s the case allow me to stick to the facts as well. Tom Cruise is magnetic. Doug Liman cobbles together a perfectly entertaining joy ride. The script is weak and the camera too fidgety for us to really focus on anything. It’s fun but nothing more.