Universal Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures/Imagine Entertainment/Quadrant Pictures/Vendian Entertainment/Kylin Pictures
Directed by Doug Liman
Produced by Brian Grazer/Brian Oliver/Tyler Thompson/Doug Davison/Kim Roth
Written by Gary Spinelli
Having pretty much devoted himself to action movies for the last decade or so it’s easy to forget that Tom Cruise was once regarded as one hell of a dramatic actor. Perhaps after having proved himself there he felt he could relax and step into comedy (such as his scene stealing role in “Tropic Thunder”) and have fun in action movies. I only mention this because I think that if the Tom Cruise of the 1990s or even the early 2K’s had starred in AMERICAN MADE the character of Barry Seal would be darker, more anguished and angst filled. But the Barry Seal we get here is a free-wheeling, loosey-goosey type of guy who’s up for anything, be it running guns to the Contras or smuggling cocaine from Columbia to the United States. And he does it all with grin and a twinkle in his eye. Tom Cruise falls back entirely on his charm to sell the character and the movie and damn if he doesn’t do it. At least he did it for me. Before I knew it I was along for Barry’s ride and enjoying it immensely.
It’s the 1970’s and TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is bored outta his mind with his job. So bored that he fakes turbulence just to have some excitement during his flights. The boredom quickly is tossed off the roof when he’s approached by Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) a CIA pencil pusher who gives Barry a fast plane, his own hangar and a new job: flying reconnaissance missions down in South America, taking pictures of communist military bases.
Being an adrenaline junkie (something Barry shares in common with several of Cruise’s characters and I suspect Tom Cruise himself) the job satisfies Barry’s craving for excitement. He actually laughs delightedly when he’s almost shot down during one of his picture taking fly-bys. But working for the CIA doesn’t exactly pay a lot and when Barry asks for more money, Schafer gives him some cryptic advice; “Figure it out for yourself.” So it comes as no surprise that when Barry is approached by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia) two of the founders of The Medellin Cartel to fly drugs in the U.S. he agrees. Soon, Barry is making so much money smuggling cocaine that he’s burying suitcases of money in his backyard.
Now if you’ve seen the trailers for this movie you will recall that there’s a part where Cruise looks right into the camera and says; “You really should stop watching now. Because this is where it gets crazy.” And he’s absolutely right because before you can say ‘Oliver North’ Barry is soon running guns to the Contras as well as flying them back to the U.S. for military training. It isn’t long before Barry realizes he’s way in over his head. He’s like that guy on “The Ed Sullivan Show” whose act was spinning plates on long sticks. You remember him. The guys started out with one plate and kept adding more and more and more until he had a dozen spinning plates going at once and you couldn’t stop watching because you wanted to see exactly how long this cat could keep it up until the plates fell. That’s Barry. And then once the FBI, DEA and even The White House gets involved…
If you’re looking for a scathing indictment of U.S. Foreign affairs policy or dark reveals of CIA activity or deep psychological examination of Barry Seal’s motives, forget it. AMERICAN MADE isn’t a full-blown comedy but it wouldn’t have taken much to push it in that direction. It’s downright breezy in spots and concentrates more on the ever escalating situations Barry finds himself in and how he gets out of them. Situations that are played more to the ridiculous and ludicrous than the dangerous. For most of the movie you never really think or feel that Barry is in any real danger or gets into a situation that he can’t talk or charm his way out of. Which I actually liked, in a way. Barry goes into drug smuggling and gun running (and so does his wife, played by Sarah Wright) with his eyes open and no illusions about what he’s doing. He’s not doing it for patriotism. He’s doing it for the money and for the jazz and he doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning his fate or agonizing about it.
I really like the look of this movie as well. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone apparently used the Instagram filter that makes pictures look like 1970’s Polaroid photos because that’s how this movie looks. You would think it would be distracting but it’s not. Visually it’s highly unique and for a child of the 1970s like myself, provided a twinge of nostalgia.
Fans of “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo” will be pleased to know that Jesse Plemons has a small but pivotal role in the movie as does Jayma Mays who most of you probably know from “Pushing Daisies” and “Glee.” Domhnall Gleeson has a lot of fun with his role as Schafer who starts out small time but thanks to Barry’s skill at getting photos and his deals with Escobar and Ochoa, allows him to move higher up the ladder in the CIA hierarchy.
So should you see AMERICAN MADE? If you’re a Tom Cruise fan, by all means. This isn’t a deep movie or an emotionally draining one. Despite the subject matter it’s handled very lightly and it’s actually pretty funny at times. It’s an enjoyable time-waster, nothing more and if you go see it in that spirit, I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.