American Made is more Lord of War than Casino but Tom Cruise’s performance is good enough to make this a pretty entertaining and good film.
American Made is the story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), the infamous former TWA airline pilot who became a major drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel as well as a DEA informant and precursor to the Iran-Contra Affair. To say that Barry Seal and his “Snowbirds” had an interesting life is an understatement. ‘American Made’ is the perfect name for this movie because the focus really is on how Seal’s illegal operations were sanctioned and backed by the US Government. In the words of Seal “I helped the US build a drug cartel in South America”.
Tom Cruise pulls most of this film along just through his performance alone. Cruise has these patented facial expressions that just seem to work for these types of characters. It’s sometimes hard to tell if Tom Cruise is acting or if he’s just the crazy but charismatic guy his characters always seem to be written as. Whichever it is, it works in American Made. Cruise excels at the unlikable, in-over-his-head, nonchalant Barry Seals. There are no heroes or good guys in this film. Just about everyone comes off as dirty. Even Seal’s wife, Lucy (Sara Wright), is made to be complicit in his dealings. Domhnall Gleeson plays a mysterious and shady CIA handler named Schafer. Gleenson is a fine actor but the script doesn’t do a good enough job balancing the need for Schafer to be mysterious with giving us some kinds of information on who he is. I couldn’t tell if he was acting under orders from someone else or if he was just a CIA analysis who was overstepping his bounds into illegal things. Again, I think the film is meant to have you questioning that but it could have been done better.
At just under 2 hours, American Made is on the low end of run times for these types of films that tell the story of criminal behavior from the point of view of the criminal. Normally shorter run times are appreciated by audiences but in this case the film suffers from it. Outside of Cruise’s performance, it’s hard to nail down anything else as memorable. The film is broken out by significant moments in Seal’s life of crime: TWA, CIA, Colombia, etc. But the quick pace of the film doesn’t really give the audience a chance to process or care about any of those moments. For instance, at one point Seal’s brother-in-law JB (Caleb Jones) shows up to live with the family. From the minute he shows up, you can tell he’s going to be a problem and Jones does a great job of nailing the character. And the situation goes about how one would expect but other characters are largely oblivious to the results, namely Seal’s wife. We’re also introduced to 4 other pilots that ran (well technically...flew) drugs with Barry and were integral in his operation but none of them are developed into full characters. This is where the film is more Lord of War than Casino. The film is shot in the same vein as Casino but the story is rushed along with no chance to savor the moments or develop characters. Thus it becomes an interesting momentary distraction rather than an instant classic.
Despite the somewhat hollow feel of the film, overall, it’s still entertaining enough to be good. American Made does a great job of blurring the lines of fact, fiction and speculation so you’re not 100% sure what exactly happened. The thing that’s so interesting about films like American Made is that humor is used to soften the reality that the United States Government has been involved in some extremely stupid, shady and illegal things. You're going to laugh at scenes then sit back and go "Hey wait, did this (or something similar) really happen?" Director Doug Liman did a great job of splicing together certain scenes or narration pieces with real life footage. Take for instance when Seals starts talking about how he escaped custody for running drugs thanks to the US government while footage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's television address telling kids to just say no to drugs is running. It's just well put together and will have you laughing at the hypocrisy.
Overall, this is a good film to check out. I do wish it had been longer and gone into a bit more details but for what it is, you won't be disappointed after checking it out.