At the very beginning of “American Made,” Tom Cruise’s Barry Seal, a pilot for the airline TWA, is flying a commercial night flight and, for the fun of it, decides to take the airplane out of autopilot and fake turbulence, waking up the sleeping passengers.
This little scene informs us straightaway what kind of person Barry is: the kind of guy who wants a little thrill and isn’t that concerned with the rules.
“American Made” is a cautionary tale about selling your soul to the devil and the crazy rewards that come with it and the price that you pay. Barry Seal gets recruited by the CIA to do under the radar work, outside the law, for the U.S. government. They have him fly to South America to do business with people like General Noriega of Nicaragua and the Medellin cartel, which includes the infamous Pablo Escobar.
Barry’s story is almost unbelievable, from the absurd amount of money he makes to the situations he finds himself in, but the funniest thing about this film is that it begins with the words “based on a true story.”
Director Doug Liman skillfully juggles the severity of Barry Seal’s actions and the danger that he is in with the comical aspects of Barry’s life, which includes lying to his wife, getting caught, and having to deal with the absurd amount of money he is making from his job.
The comedy downplays the fact that he’s a drug runner and a weapons dealer for the government and working with one of the biggest cartels in history, amongst other unsavory people.
Cruise is at his best here playing Barry as a sort of innocent, a man who is way in over his head, and who probably never thought things too well before he got onboard. He is not naive, though, but Cruise plays him as a sort of simple-minded everyman who wanted a thrill, got seduced by the money, and found himself unable to get out.
This is probably Cruise’s best performance and this movie is all his. I could have used more scenes from Sarah Wright, who plays his wife Lucy. Her character is sort of an emotional anchor, one of the main reasons why Barry wanted the money in the first place, but the film never really gives us more about them and their relationship. Wright is a strong presence, though, and it would have been nice to have seen more of her to reinforce a necessary emotional point at the later part of the film. It’s my only caveat.
The film’s colors are saturated to give the impression of the time period, the late ’70s, to the early ’80s, which gives it a dream-like quality that make the unbelievable situations Barry finds himself in believable. It heightens the comic while diffusing the horrible truth that’s being portrayed in the film. It’s subversive and even anti-American in its efforts to implicate the U.S. government in dealings with the Medellin drug cartel and their hand in Nicaragua’s civil war.
It’s only when the story can’t get any crazier and when the laws of physics insist that what comes up must come down that the film turns over its head and reveals itself for its politically charged underlying message.
Blinded by Tom Cruise’s charm, the precise editing, and the film’s impeccable structure, what we are really watching here is a warning about how government’s secret agendas affect the world and naive individuals. It shows us the seductive powers of money and adventure and how all of it can be fun and funny and exciting until it’s not.