Review of “American Made”

It’s the late 1970’s and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a pilot for Trans World Airlines. He’s bored by the daily grind of flying from one city to the next so he likes to pull stunts that shake up the passengers and his co-pilot. One day while laid over in yet another city and another hotel, Barry is approached by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with an opportunity: Own your own business and fly reconnaissance missions in Central America for the CIA. Seal’s photos are appreciated by Schafer and his bosses and they decide to add runs to Nicaragua for Seal to give Manuel Noriega payoffs in exchange for his intelligence on communist rebels. Seal’s flights in and out of Central America attract the attention of a cocaine smuggling cartel that includes Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia). The cartel wants Seal to fly their product into America on his return trips. In exchange they will pay him enormous sums of cash. The CIA turns a blind eye to Seal’s work for the cartel but the Drug Enforcement Agency tries to shut him down so Schafer moves Seal, his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their kids to a small town in Arkansas. There they set Seal up with his own airport and thousands of acres of undeveloped land surrounding it. Soon the CIA wants Seal to ferry Contras into the US for training and transporting thousands of guns for their insurrection against the communist government of Nicaragua. Barry Seal is playing both sides in a dangerous, high stakes game that could lead to a great deal of death and destruction. If only he had listened to Nancy Reagan and just said “No!”

“American Made” follows the adventures of Barry Seal and his dealings with the CIA, a major drug cartel and the Contras of Nicaragua. It is a story of patriotism, capitalism and the fight against communism. It’s a story of hubris and well-informed stupidity. It is also a study in not learning from history and being doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. In other words, “American Made” is about what’s going on right now. It is an entertaining movie that takes a true story and almost makes you hope Barry Seal somehow gets away with everything he’s doing and lives happily ever after with his wife and kids under a new identity in a small town staying under the radar. Sadly, real life rarely works out fairly.

I really enjoyed “American Made” and the performance of Tom Cruise as the devil-may-care Barry Seal. This is the kind of role Cruise can sink his teeth into; creating a nuanced and complicated character that is able to ride the line between hero and villain. Nothing Seal does after about the first five minutes of the movie is remotely legal, even if he is doing it for the US government; but Cruise makes Seal such a likable rogue you can’t help but hope he succeeds (check Wikipedia to find out how things turned out for Seal). Unlike the character he played in “The Mummy,” Cruise is able to find the right balance of caring husband/father and gun/drug-running scumbag. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a few beers with and be enthralled by his stories. You’d never know if he was lying to you but Seal (as played by Cruise) is so charming and entertaining you wouldn’t care. Barry Seal is probably Cruise’ best performance in the last 20 years.

Domhnall Gleeson is also terrific as CIA operative Monty Schafer. A brilliant combination of best friend, kindly mentor and threatening bureaucrat, Gleeson gives Schafer just the right mix to make him interesting to watch since you are never quite sure which side of his personality will show up. Gleeson is woefully underused in the role. While it would have never happened in real life it would have been great to see Schafer join Seal on a trip to Nicaragua and experience life in the field for once.

While “American Made” is extremely entertaining the story is also ultimately infuriating. Knowing how things turn out for the CIA operation and the eventual creation of the Iran/Contra plan that tainted President Reagan’s legacy and wound up exposing the extent of the intelligence agency’s involvement in drug running, money laundering and arms dealing, watching it all unfold onscreen and seeing how there were numerous opportunities to stop it makes you wonder just how smart the people running the darker corners of the government are. It reminds me of the new PBS documentary on the Vietnam War from Ken Burns. In the second episode there are at least two, possibly three, opportunities for America to pull out of Vietnam; but the fear of Communism and the desire of President Kennedy to get reelected proved to be more powerful than common sense. While I’m no student of history, there are probably more examples of obvious signs that should have been heeded to prevent catastrophe and failure that were ignored. Apparently tunnel vision is a very real and dangerous thing.

“American Made” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. The nudity consists mostly of women in lingerie and Tom Cruise’ bare backside he flashes at his family as a joke. We see a couple of sex scenes but they are very mild and brief. Foul language is common throughout the film.

On numerous occasions I have referred to Tom Cruise as a “tool” for his behavior on the Today Show towards Matt Lauer and his association with the Church of Scientology and I maintain that opinion; however, I am also of the opinion that, if given the right role, Cruise is one of the best actors in the world. In “American Made,” Cruise is in the right role. While Barry Seal may have been a dumpy man way in over his head, Cruise makes him a charismatic rebel that almost pulls off a masterful plan to get rich beyond anyone’s dreams. It may be a perversion of the American Dream but Seal, as played by Cruise, makes it look attainable and worth the risk.

“American Made” gets five stars.

A long-gestating sequel, a high-altitude adventure and animated juvenile equines debut on screens this week. I’ll see and review one of the following:

Blade Runner 2049—

The Mountain Between Us—

My Little Pony—

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