Hark to the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) underachieving, high-dreaming commercial pilot who, in the mid ’70s, is approached by a shadowy (aren’t they all?) CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) to start doing a few odd jobs for The Company.
At first it’s pretty hair-raising but almost innocuous stuff, like snapping a few reconnaissance photos over particularly volatile patches of Central America. Then it’s running money to “friendly” figures like Panama’s Manuel Noriega. Before long it’s making nice with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. And then, almost before you know it, our man Barry is the de facto head of Air America Mark II, running guns, drugs, money, and Contra rebels in, out and across the USA, all at the behest of Uncle Sugar. The money is fantastic and the work is interesting, but how long before it all goes to hell in a handbasket?
We’ve seen this kind of story before – the unreliable, garrulous narrator, the guided tour through the underworld, the colourful characters, the dizzying highs, the inevitable fall from grace. Scorsese’s Goodfellas is the most obvious and best example of the breed, but consider also Lord of War and Blow. American Made might not be as fine a film as Goodfellas (to be fair, few are), but it’s still a propulsively entertaining ride through the underbelly of America, thanks to deft, energetic direction from Doug Liman, and a charismatic, layered performance from the Cruiser.
It’s sometimes easy – and encouraged – to forget what a committed performer Cruise is, especially with dross like The Mummy still in the rear view mirror, but he gives a great turn here as the affable, “aw shucks” Seal, whose journey into the dark heart of American foreign policy is made palatable by Cruise’s easy charm. As Seal’s exploits get weirder, the crimes get bigger, and the money begins to pile up (literally – one of Seal’s logistical problems is trying to hide literal bales of cash) to the point where it beggars belief, it’s Cruise’s to-camera narration – a conceit that comes to make sense in the final stretch of the film – and “I know, right?” attitude that helps us go along with even the most outrageous story elements, such as when Seal is running a training camp for Contra guerrillas on his rural property at the behest of the CIA.
That, more than anything else, is Seal’s function as a character in his own story – to put a human face on the almost unbelievable machinations of the secret state, and to guide us through the murky nexus where crime, espionage, politics and business commingle. On the surface, American Made is the story of an individual, but in its heart it’s really about these titanic forces, how they play against – and with – each other, and what happens to the people caught in their gravity.
Of course, America Made is a “print the legend” affair, and while Seal’s career as a drug runner is well documented, his connections with the US intelligence community are far more dubious. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli know which version of events makes for a better story, though, so it’s best not to get too caught up in notions of what is verifiable – or even plausible – as Seal’s exploits take him right into the nerve centre of ’80s America’s “war on drugs” and the Iran-Contra scandal, complete with close encounters with Oliver North and other key players.
Inevitably the wheels come off, of course. Will it be due to Seal’s ne’er-do-well brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones doing another of his trademark dirtbags), who just can’t seem to keep a lid on the good deal Seal has engineered for his family and friends? Or will Jesse Plemons’ small town sheriff finally twig that the sheer amount of money Seal is bringing into their little burg is a bit beyond the pale? Or will the Medellins or the Company simply remove the shoot-from-the-hip Seal in the most efficient and ruthless manner possible? That would be telling (then again, so would a quick Google search for the real life Barry Seal) but, as in so many things, it’s the journey, not the destination.
And American Made is quite a journey. There’s a deep cynicism at the heart of Liman’s film even when it’s being irresistably entertaining, a mistrust of the American systems of both government and commerce – and particularly the ways in which they interact – that colours the proceedings, giving a bitter edge to even the most madcap of Seal’s adventures, and the inevitability of his fate is a crucial part of the equation. Ultimately, American Made is about how individuals are used and abused by monolithic, complex systems of power and money, disguised as a wild ride with the cocaine cowboys of Reagan’s America. For all his bravado and daring, his cocksure charm and can-do attitude, Cruise’s Barry Seal is just one more asset among millions, and his rugged individualism can’t save him from the scrapheap when he’s outlived his usefulness.