Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is working as a pilot for TWA in the late 70s when she’s spotted by CIA agent Monty ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson). Schafer wants Barry to fly reconnaissance missions in Central America, where the Soviet Union is backing Communist militias. His success at that leads to missions where he acts of the CIA courier to General Noriega in Panama, as well as helping to arm the anti-Communist Nicaraguan Contras in Honduras.
All this leads him to some dodgy places, including into the sphere of the Medellin Cartel, who get Barry to help them smuggle drugs into the US on his return trips. The CIA turn a blind eye to his side job as long as he still gets results. However, not every US law enforcement agency is as keen to ignore Barry’s smuggling.
Doug Liman worked together a couple of years ago on the underrated Edge Of Tomorrow, and have now come back together for the very different American Made. The result is an entertaining if lightweight look at the real-life story of Barry Seal, whose ‘contribution’ to the CIA eventually led to the infamous Iran-Contra Affair.
Cruise seems to be having a great time in the role, but as always when he leans towards comedy, he doesn’t seem all that comfortable and what’s supposed to be charm sometimes comes across as smugness. Thankfully by keeping an edge of manic desperation to what’s happening, so that Barry spends most of his time careering from one potential disaster to another. However, and as with some other similar films, there are times when its rather jolly tone is at odds with the seriousness of what it’s talking about.
That jolly tone does pull you in, playing with the increasingly farcical situation that Barry gets into, whether its his difficulty knowing what to do with the ridiculous amounts of cash he’s making, or how he gets closer and closer to the highest levels of government, even though he’s a major drug smuggler. That said, it does play with the true facts of the case, partly so that it doesn’t all seem quite as grubby as it actually was, and so that Barry doesn’t look like a complete scumbag.
It actually makes for a very weird morality, as the script loves the ambiguity of what the American government was up to, and essentially makes them the bad guys of the piece, while giving a comparative ethical pass to the likes of Pablo Escobar and drug smuggling Barry himself.
If you look past that though, it’s a slickly made and often surprisingly funny movie. Doug Liman keeps the pace flying along so that there’s not too much time to really think about what you’re seeing (which is a good thing), while ensuring that the action sequences are exciting, fun and rather manic. Indeed, there is a bit of a sense of deliberate frenzy about the whole thing, taking things to the edge of farce and then almost incredulously reminding the audience that it’s actually based on a true story.
It doesn’t really add up to an awful lot, which is slightly odd for a movie based on such a potentially explosive tale, but it is oddly entertaining. I still think Cruise would be better staying away from anything approaching comedy, but he could have done a lot worse than American Made.
Overall Verdict: Although the whole thing is rather morally dubious if you think about it, American Made ensures its surface is diverting and fun enough that you can have a good time with it anyway.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac