An airline pilot will have to fly above the clouds in order to escape the feds who are hot on his trail, in ‘American Made’. Director Doug Liman and Tom Cruise team together one more time, this time centering around the story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a TWA pilot in 1978 who is recruited by the CIA, specifically a seedy mastermind deep within the department named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to provide reconnaissance on the burgeoning communist threat in Central America. Barry soon finds himself in charge of one of the biggest covert CIA operations in the history of the United States, smuggling in hundreds of pounds of cocaine to the Southern territories. This story spawned the birth of the Medellin cartel and eventually almost brought down the Reagan White House with the Iran Contra scandal that rocked nations across the globe. ‘American Made’ is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.
Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious drug trafficker ever, so there’s certainly no shortage of screenplays based on his controversial life as a smuggler. ‘American Made’ is yet another of those chapters, but with a bit of the twist that supplants the domestic side of its surreal storytelling. The film itself features Escobar for all of about twenty minutes, choosing instead to focus on an original narrative to the story by centering it around one of his pivotal chess pieces when it comes to moving his product in. When you think about the harsh realities of how drugs have shaped and poisoned our society, guys like Barry Seal shouldn’t come to mind, but the green of dollar bills will make even our own citizens do the most irrational of things, and that is what we have here. ‘American Made’ feels like a take on entrepreneurship post ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, and while I do feel like those comparisons in structure and the complementary breaking of the fourth wall are completely justified from Liman’s film, this one does fall remotely short in capturing the same kind of immersive essence that kept me on the edge of my seat for nearly three hours with its predecessor.
Many things do however compliment this as a strongly put together piece of cinema, pushing authentic vibes in cinematography and direction that craft this as something so much more than just an entertaining film. We are treated to some intricate levels of artistic merit throughout the presentation that really establishes the kind of setting in time that showcase just how different and untested the laws were then. Many films anymore include the choices of authentic 70’s grainy footage during that era for its establishing shots and narrative storytelling, but it’s in those same grainy filters and cheap style choices that Liman brings along with us to keep its visual enticement fresh and consistent. From the guerilla style shooting, to the tight-knit camera angles, there were many times during the film when I felt like I was watching government footage that I just happened to stumble across. In addition to this, the beautiful and breathtaking cinematography is aplenty, focusing on the depiction in differences between the landscapes of Arkansas and South America that figuratively and literally fly by with our protagonist’s plot.
On the subject of style alone, this film is a ten, but some of the lasting power of the screenplay by Gary Spinelli does leave slightly more to be desired. This isn’t a boring film at all, and there was never a point when I wasn’t invested in the unfolding series of uphill climbs that Barry faces, but the film takes very little time, especially early on, to get to know the man when he isn’t in the cockpit. To that degree, this feels like a one-sided effort that focuses entirely on his missions and less with what makes him such a protagonist to get behind. What I did enjoy is Barry’s breaking of the fourth wall by narrating to a video camera to us who are watching. Narration is always a slippery slope, but because the career of drug-smuggling is one that requires further elaboration, there’s plenty of chances for Barry to get personal, and it works in furthering the exposition that are skimmed but not scanned in the first act. Besides this, there is also a great overall attitude to the film that does poke fun at the cynicism and mounting tension of this once prosperous pilot being in over his head in a world where he knows very little. This kept the film at a light-hearted atmosphere while playing up plenty of the consequences that shock and level Barry and his surrounding set-up. Because of this, I feel that ‘American Made’ does have solid replay value because it chooses to never weigh to heavily on conscience, instead remaining focused on just having a good time.
The pacing for the film is slightly uneven during the first act, mainly because it feels like it is in a rush to get to the good stuff, but the later acts smooth things out by feeling like it is taking what necessary time it needs to educate. On the subject of that first act, it was flooring to see how quickly this plan all came together, and I do wish that more precious minutes were used to hammer home who Barry was before it all went down. This could give us reasoning to side with Barry and understand his desire to do something that he himself knows is illegal, but pushes forward. The runtime too is valuable in this aspect. At 105 minutes, ‘American Made’ can feel like some angles are being glossed over, but the focus remains firm in supplanting the audience with the kind of insurmountable odds that Barry and crew now have to overcome. This could all of course fall behind with redundancy before the grand finale, but the tempo of this direction always keeps us one step ahead by giving us an easy sit in the face of all of the mayhem.
As for performances, this is all kind of a one man show, but that doesn’t mean that one man doesn’t commit himself to a role that doesn’t cast him in the most admirable of lights. Cruise is of course that guy, and as Barry we see a man who is a bit rude, a bit careless, and even a bit lost in something bigger than him. Through his usual endless energy, Cruise commands Barry to dizzying distress and an unflinching southern accent that grants him a nosedive into this charismatic side. Tom seems to be accepting these roles in the later part of his career that don’t highlight him as the flawless hero, and that embracing of the vulnerability that has garnered him some acclaimed attention over the past few years, has granted him staying power decade after decade. Despite this being a one man show mostly, Gleeson is also sneakily terrific as the boss of sorts for Barry. Domhnall is quickly carving away a reputation for versatility in the jobs he undertakes, and the spin of Schafer here is certainly no different, as Gleeson feels conniving and brash in a race for riches that is unlike anything we’ve seen him in yet in his blossoming career.
THE VERDICT – The success of ‘American Made’ is based solely on its impeccably authentic artistic expression, as well as the fiery wild card performance of its male lead that feels fine on Cruise control. Doug Liman’s cautionary tale about 70’s greed and corruption feels rushed in some spots early on, and overall lacks the kind of permanent, poignant humbling that better films in the genre unleash upon, but there’s enough charm in the air from the familiar off-screen dance partners here to leave it on auto-pilot and just let it fly.