It’s at least 15 minutes till American Made reveals its framing device, a cruddy VHS home-video recording circa 1985 of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) sweatily recounting his story in a still-bemused, “you’re not going to believe this shit” confessional style. These updates continue, accompanied by rushed, handwritten intertitles (“TWA ’78,” “DEA ’83”) as Barry takes us through his improbable tale of arms dealing, drug trafficking, and money laundering at the behest of the U.S. government during the Reagan administration’s covert funding of the Nicaraguan Contras.
But when an actor like Cruise tells us things are about to get crazy, we lean forward in our seats instinctively. No matter how corrupt and unconscionable the mess Barry finds himself in, he’s either clueless or amoral enough to summon a convivial outlook on it all. As the film nears its inevitable conclusion, Barry tries to sum up what he’s learned. He cocks his chin and looks down the barrel of the lens. “You try telling me this isn’t the greatest country in the…” Before he can finish that thought, the tape degrades into nothingness. At my screening, you could hear a pin drop.
If you’re the type of viewer who thought Wolf of Wall Street’s failing was that it looked too cool, American Made is for you. It’s the grubbiest, greasiest vision of bad boys gettin’ away with it in recent memory, a glass of sour milk specifically timed to curdle just at the moment you think it might be harmless. Doug Liman’s direction is jarring and oftentimes downright ugly; sometimes it feels like a miracle that César Charlone’s camera lands on the actors at all. But boy, does it move. Perhaps improbably, especially for a film starring a man who’s still one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, if not the biggest, it bears more resemblance to Liman’s scrappy 1999 debut Go than anything he’s made this century.
The film is based on the true story of Seal, a TWA pilot who is recruited to take aerial photographs of Sandinista bases by CIA agent Monty Schafer. Schafer, played with gleeful sliminess by Domhnall Gleeson, is the quintessential Cruise foil, a paper-pusher in a slick suit who is too cowardly to get his own hands dirty. The difference here is that Barry matches Monty for slime, pound for pound — he’s got little in the way of a conscience, already having a side hustle going smuggling Cuban cigars from Canada. He takes the assignment, which he’s so good at that he soon becomes a liaison between the agency and General Noriega, flying down large sums of cash in exchange for intel. During one of these missions, he’s intercepted by Pablo Escobar’s cartel, and soon begins trafficking cocaine on the side, because hey, when in Panama. Basically, he’s either the best or worst multitasker ever.
The CIA, as personified by Gleeson, begins heaping bigger and more dangerous jobs on him, and Seal, not wanting or knowing how to say no, goes along with all of it. It eventually necessitates moving him and his family to a small town in Arkansas, where he’s given 2,000 acres to run what has now become a gun-running, drug-smuggling, Contra-training operation. His pretty blonde wife (Sarah Wright) does what all wives of men with lucrative extralegal professions do: pout and protest and then enjoy the mountains of cash with gusto.
I’ve read some critics say that Cruise, who is now 55 years old, needs to plot a career strategy to gracefully age out of these sorts of brash, action-oriented roles. But his strangely aging visage is as compelling as ever; at times it looks as if he’s being physically dragged toward his 60s against his will. It serves the film well, despite the fact that Seal himself was at least a decade younger throughout most of the events that inspired American Made. As played by Cruise, Barry is a man who ardently doesn’t want to grow up, and happens to be slick and charismatic enough to stave it off longer than most. Liman is attuned to this frequency of Cruise’s better than most directors, having found a similar manic note for him in the excellent Edge of Tomorrow. And American Made, which is consistently better than it has to be despite still hitting the occasional cliché pothole, is the best Cruise has been in years.