“American Made” gives Tom Cruise the role of a lifetime and it just might be his best performance yet. With an amazing script based on the incredulous events of Barry Seal’s life as a TWA Airline pilot turned CIA recognizance pilot, then drug smuggler for the biggest drug cartel in the world, which turned into an additional job as gun runner to “help the war effort,” the film takes us on Seal’s journey, seen from his perspective. Reminicent of “Argo,” but with ironic humor and gripping action, “American Made” gives us a history lesson and an exciting adventure story that happens to be real.
We meet Seal (Cruise) as the successful yet bored airline pilot whose mundane job has a little spark to it as he smuggles illegal Cuban cigars throughout the U.S. The CIA catches him in an awkward exchange that becomes the beginning of his life in government and of crime. The two, it turns out, are not separate. As one of the best pilots the CIA has ever had, his “responsibilities” grow, but his paycheck does not—typical government job. Meeting a group of young entrepreneurs from Columbia (Pablo Escobar, et al) Seal sees a way to increase revenue and enables this drug cartel to grow exponentially, becoming President Reagan’s number one target. The Iran-Contra Affair is at the heart of this film and little-known writer Gary Spinelli gives us the blow by blow in one of the most entertaining styles possible.
In “American Made,” there are no “good guys.” There are bad guys and worse bad guys. Told from Seal’s viewpoint, we definitely have sympathy for him as we see how one bad choice spirals out of control. Greed seems to be at the heart of the motivation, but when you have to “rake up” the money that’s blowing around your yard after your dog digs it up, how much is enough? While Seal may not be the brightest bulb in the box, he is a survivor and he loves his family, but the stakes grow ever higher. The tension builds in the viewer as we want this guy to make it out. We all know the story, but if you don’t it’s even more gripping.
Spinelli and director Doug Liman choose to tell the story in non-linear form as Seal has video taped his recounting of his life, looking back to the very beginning. Intermittently, these recordings appear enabling viewers to fill in all the missing pieces of the puzzle. His interaction with the Contras, the Sandinistas, the Columbians, and the power of circle within these organizations. Humor is found, generally in ironic situations or unexpected dialogue, with his wife (Sarah Wright) who is loving, but not trusting, and can see right through her husband. The small town of Mena, AK that the Seal family moves to just before a police raid on their house in Louisianna, has it’s own characters that turn a blind eye to the events taking place under their noses.
It’s a near perfect script with the concise writing and acting, but the action just puts this film over the top. Flight scenes (all performed by Cruise) make your heart skip a beat and you find yourself pushing back in your own seat as Seal attempts to take off from too short of a landing strip. Cruise is stellar in this role where he is the center of the film and not one scene takes place without him. He is a seasoned actor who understands that there’s more to a character than being one-dimensional. Cruise nails it with his portrayal of Seal. This brilliant performance allows other characters to shine equally as bright including Domhnall Gleeson, a member of the CIA and Seal’s boss, Wright as the tough spouse, and Caleb Landry Jones as JB, the dimwitted brother-in-law. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the shocking look-alikes of George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer) and Oliver North (Robert Farrior) in their younger years. We even get real footage of Nancy Reagan and her husband addressing the public about the War on Drugs and the “Just Say No” campaign.
“American Made” is an intensely entertaining historical recounting of a controversial era, uncovering and implicating high level officials in carrying out illegal actions seen from the viewpoint of Pilot Barry Seal. It’s a thrilling film that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you get to know this man and understand his situation. You even get a tutorial about the Iran-Contra Affair. What more could you ask for in a film?