FILM REVIEW – AMERICAN MADE. With Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones. Written by Gary Spinelli. Directed by Doug Liman. Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. 115 minutes.
Such is our public cynicism these days that movies about America’s involvement in modern war end up playing as tragedy or farce. AMERICAN MADE, like last year’s “War Dogs,” purports to be the mostly-true story of American civilians getting caught up in international intrigue in exchange for big bucks, but who are really only being used by more powerful people who are not really interested in their welfare.
In this case, it’s Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a commercial airline pilot for TWA who is approached by a “Mr. Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) who denies it, but works for the CIA. (“Barry Seal” is the name of the film in some overseas countries.) They want to set up Seal in his own business where he’ll make frequent flights in a small plane to Central and South America. It’s the 1980s and the U.S. is obsessed with the Sandinistas in El Salvador. Seal is paid to do reconnaissance but is soon making payoffs to Manuel Noriega in Panama and supplying arms to the Contras in El Salvador. That’s when he’s approached by the Medellin drug cartel. As long as he’s doing these flights back and forth, how would he like to make some money smuggling cocaine?
No one is interested in anything but results and as long as arms go south, drugs go north, and, later on, Contras arrive on land put in Seal’s name in Mena, Arkansas for clandestine training, everyone’s happy. Indeed, Seal is making so much money that a local bank builds a second vault to handle the assets of their other customers, the main vault given over entirely to Seal. It’s still not enough, with suitcases stuffed with cash piling up, attracting the attention of not only the state police, but also the FBI and the DEA.
Cruise plays this mostly for laughs, and it’s a return to the screen of the charmer of his earlier films. Other characters, like his wife (Sarah Wright) and brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) are barely sketched in, and so we don’t really see them as more than background to Seal’s story. While the film has its laughs and its action, it falls short in terms of narrative coherence. As Seal skips from one adventure to the next, there are loose threads all over the place.
It’s suggested that George W. Bush was involved in fighting the drug cartel as a pilot, but that goes nowhere. Another character is murdered and not only are there no consequences, but after he disappears no one seems to notice he’s going missing except for a scene played as a joke where someone not aware of the murder worries he might talk to the authorities. The story is told in flashback via videos Seal is recording about his misadventures, yet we later see those video confiscated by the government, so how did this story get out?
“American Made” is not quite a brainless movie, as its digs at bureaucratic infighting, or the ease at which Seal escapes responsibility for his actions for much of his career, are amusing. Yet in going for easy laughs–as in “Schafer’s” transition from one interenational mess to another at film’s end–it doesn’t require much thought either. Overall the film is diverting, which counts for something, but not much more.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.