Featuring one of Tom Cruise’s best performances in recent years, American Made is a darkly funny, dizzying crime film that nevertheless ultimately feels inconsequential and overly familiar.
Like so many other true crime flicks made in the wake of GoodFellas, American Made is a years-spanning saga told in a sprawling yet frenzied fashion where the protagonist recounts his criminal career from its simple origins to its decadent heights to the desperately paced, walls-closing-in downfall. From Blow to American Hustle (which also would’ve been an appropriate title for this movie), we’ve seen this same form of true crime film execution done so many times already. (Hell, even Scorsese borrowed from his own playbook for The Wolf of Wall Street.)
Taking place from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s, American Made chronicles the (loosely) fact-based story of how Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) went from being a bored airline pilot smuggling Cuban cigars to a CIA operative covertly running guns to the Contras while also simultaneously delivering drugs stateside for the Medellin Cartel.
Barry’s a good ol’ boy looking for fortune and excitement and, at first, he gets his fair share of both. But for the men he’s dealing with, at home and abroad, life is far cheaper than the narcotics they’re trafficking or the foreign policy objectives they seek. Barry may be able to deliver the goods like no one else but he’s also a liability.
Barry is a blithe rogue but he never really transforms or grows. His circumstances may change, but Barry himself never quite evolves or even registers emotionally as a character, despite Cruise’s charm offensive. Director Doug Liman, who previously cast action hero Cruise as a coward in Edge of Tomorrow, has admitted he cast Cruise as the high-flying, Reagan era pilot because of Top Gun. As clever and subversive as Cruise’s casting is, though, the story never quite finds a way to make Barry more dimensional than, say, one of the Dukes of Hazzard (albeit with a plane instead of a muscle car).
It’s tough to care much about most of the other people in the story or to quite grasp what it all really ultimately meant or mattered. Domnhall Gleeson shines as the career-minded CIA agent who recruits Barry, while Get Out’s Caleb Landry Jones once again proves he can play a creep like no one else. Sarah Wright does she what she can with the underwritten role of Barry’s much younger wife Lucy, who may question where his windfall of riches stems from but still enjoys what it brings her. Jesse Plemons and Lola Kirke must have had most of their scenes end up on the cutting room floor seeing as how little screen time they end up with here as an Arkansas sheriff and his wife.
American Made flies past a lot of history that it apparently assumes the audience already knows or has strong feelings about (e.g., the Iran-Contra affair). Comedic, animated sequences of exposition help shed some light on the historical backdrop, but they never quite make you feel the weight of what was going down. Iran-Contra was a scandal that rocked the Reagan administration and showed the government and intelligence community’s willingness to circumvent the law for its own political ends, but the weight of all that — and thus the consequences of Barry’s choices — feel undercut.
Where American Made does take flight, though, is in its embrace of how absurd and wild Barry’s whole journey is and the intoxication of sudden wealth and outlaw freedom. But, again with the GoodFellas comparisons, this breezily executed, relentless whirlwind of illicit activity is something that other true crime movies have done for almost thirty years now. The basics of the formula still work, but caring about anyone involved all depends on the character’s personal growth over the course of the story. In the case of Cruise’s Barry Seal, he’s basically on autopilot from the beginning until the end.
(Trivia note: Barry Seal’s story was previously told in the HBO film Doublecrossed, starring Dennis Hopper and directed by Roger Young. Young and American Made’s Doug Liman also both previously directed adaptations of The Bourne Identity, Young with a TV miniseries in 1988 and Liman with the 2002 Matt Damon film.)