Based on a true story, American Made tells the tale of one-time commercial pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise). Seal’s personality and unique set of skills led to him being taken on as a spy by the CIA, leading to him running one of the biggest covert operations in U.S. history. At the same time, Seal was recruited as a drug runner by Pablo Escobar and became embroiled in one of the greatest scandals to rock a president’s reign.
Fun and fresh — in some ways
Despite its murky subject matter, director Doug Liman makes sure that American Made is, above all, fun. Taking his cue from the tone and narrative of Goodfellas, with a dose of the more recent Argo, Liman pieces together a very digestible take on an involved narrative.
It’s a fresh and wacky interpretation of typically gritty Escobar fare. While the film retains the violence you might expect (albeit less frequent and graphic) as well as elements of menace, which ramp up towards the end, Liman plays up the farcical elements of the story. And there are many — including the fact that Seal is making so much cash he literally runs out of places to stash it.
When he’s not struggling to conceal it amid the hay in his horses’ stables, it’s falling out of stuffed cupboards on top of him. There’s also the moment he crash-lands his plane in the middle of a suburban residential street, emerging dusted head to toe in cocaine.
Structure and approach boost the entertainment factor
Liman’s expertise and considerable experience are very evident in American Made. He takes a convoluted plot anchored in real-life political intricacies and presents it as pure entertainment. All without undercutting the gravity of what went on.
In the film, the CIA — headed up by Domhnall Gleeson’s shady operative Shafer — eventually orders all documentation relating to Seal destroyed. So Cruise’s Seal takes it upon himself to record his exploits via a series of what we’d today call vlogs.
He sets about detailing his dodgy dealings on VHS via camcorder. Liman makes great use of this device to present events to us, giving the film a clear, easy-to-follow structure set out in chapters.
It’s an engaging way to tell the story, and makes the political situation and the particulars of who’s involved in what and when perfectly comprehensible. That’s whether “business” concerns the Contras, Ronald Reagan or Manuel Noriega. Liman does it all without breaking the two-hour mark, which is a feat in itself.
The old Cruise charm works wonders
As for Cruise, he’s back to his best – he’s unfailingly charismatic and likable in the role. And it’s crucial that he is. Charm is a pre-requisite to bringing Barry Seal to life on screen. He’s a man deeply involved in shadowy goings-on. If we’re to sympathise with the film’s anti-hero and buy into him and what he managed to pull off, we need to be convinced of his magnetism.
Regardless of the fact that Seal was drug-running for Pablo Escobar on a grand scale and also dealing in arms, the real-life Seal was also a family man. He’s been described as a “rascal” and a “simple opportunist”. Others have said he’s “a complex character motivated by a litany of other reasons” and so naïve “that it’s impossible not to like him”. Cruise manages to capture every single one of these descriptions.
Peripheral characters might benefit from being more fleshed out
Where the film could fall down is in its portrayal of Seal’s wife, Lucy, played by Sarah Wright Olsen. And though the character doesn’t have a lot to do in terms of action, she is key in helping us to understand Seal and sympathise with him. She’s brought to life by a really engaging Olsen and is three-dimensional enough to allow us to see Seal through her eyes. He’s maddening, for sure, but she clearly has a lot of love for her husband, as he does for her. And that makes us root for him in a way we might otherwise not.
Gleeson also deserves a mention. Another compelling character, Shafer floats about like an ethereal presence, popping up unannounced at unexpected moments to come to Seal’s help or hindrance. Gleeson instills in him an unhinged quality that is immensely appealing.
However, in keeping the film’s run time down to below two hours, Liman misses out on telling Shafer’s story. We’d love to know more about the background of this intriguing character. And despite the film’s original approach to an Escobar story, there’s something about the film that feels very familiar. You can definitely feel the Goodfellas and Argo influence – to its detriment. There’s also a touch of the zaniness of a couple of George Clooney films, most notably The Men Who Stare at Goats. This seen-it-all-before sensation deadens the impact of the story.
Is ‘American Made’ any good?
A real-life story that hasn’t been told on the big screen before, American Made is an energetic and fun look at a scandal that rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency, from the perspective of an ordinary man at the centre of operations.
Bolstered by some superb performances, it’s let down by its skimpiness when it comes to the detail behind other elements of the story. In particular the character of Shafer. There’s also the nagging sense that you’ve seen it all before. It won’t win awards, but it entertains, that’s for sure – and fills in the gaps of an incredible real-life story.
American Made hits screens in the U.K. on August 25 and the U.S. on September 29.