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—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and anywhere you get podcasts. Send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Bridge of Spies”

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a Soviet spy operating out of his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. He is captured by federal agents and, after failing to get him to cooperate and become a double agent, plan on putting him on trial for espionage. If convicted, he would likely be executed. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer with a major New York firm. He is approached by the government to act as legal counsel for Abel. Despite not having practiced criminal law in decades, Donovan agrees. Meanwhile, the CIA is interviewing Air Force pilots to fly the U2 spy plane over Soviet territory and take pictures of various installations. One of those pilots is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers and several others are accepted into the program and trained on how to operate the aircraft and what to do should they be shot down: Set the self-destruct mechanism in the plane and, if they are near a friendly border, bail out. Otherwise, they are instructed to go down with the plane. If they do bail out and face capture, they are supposed to commit suicide using a poisoned needle. Abel goes on trial and despite Donovan’s best efforts is convicted. He is sentenced to 30 years in prison. Powers goes up on his first mission and despite assurances the plane flew higher than Soviet defenses could shoot, his plane is hit by missiles and the damage blows him out of the cockpit, preventing him from setting off the self-destruct. Powers is captured and put on trial where he is found guilty and sentenced to a long term in a Russian prison. A cryptic letter received by Donovan from someone claiming to be Abel’s wife sets in motion a series of events that leads him to becoming the unofficial negotiator of a prisoner swap between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: The spy Rudolf Abel for the spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers with the exchange to take place in the newly walled off East Berlin.

“Bridge of Spies” is not a film to watch if you are looking for action and adventure…at least the way it is depicted in the run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie. The excitement of “Bridge of Spies” comes from the knowledge that much of what is being shown on screen actually happened. A common man with no connection to the government was called upon to defend an accused Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War when doing so likely made him, in the eyes of the country, a traitor. He argued for the rights of a man that wasn’t a citizen but should be given every privilege the Constitution provides in regards to his criminal case. It was a brave stand to take at a time when just being connected to the American Communist Party could get you fired from your job.

There’s no better person to portray a man of singular courage and strongly held beliefs than Tom Hanks. Hanks makes Donovan an everyman with an uncommon sense of fairness. With the twinkle in his eye and the soft spoken delivery we’ve come to know, love and expect, Hanks portrays Donovan as a zealous advocate that can verbally beat you to death with logic and knowledge and make you feel the better for it. Even when he comes up against a judge that has already made up his mind and ignores all of his constitutionally based arguments about the evidence, Donovan maintains his cool despite his abhorrence at the miscarriage of justice being forced upon his client. Donovan doesn’t mind being less subtle when he’s pressured by a CIA agent to tell him what Abel has said in their meetings. Hanks can fix a stare at the target of his wrath that could peel paint off a wall; yet, when he schools the agent on the constitution, it is done with firmness but gentleness.

Hanks is a fantastic actor that seems like a fantastic person. I’ve heard him interviewed by Chris Hardwick a couple of times on Hardwick’s “Nerdist” podcast. Hanks appears as down to earth and average as any of his roles. Whether he’s playing a ship captain being held at gunpoint by Somali pirates or the lead astronaut on a trip to the moon that goes horribly wrong, Tom Hanks always seems to play his role with understated strength and calm that makes the moments when his character loses that calm all the more affecting. (Spoiler Alert) At the end of “Captain Phillips,” when he’s been rescued and is finally safe, Hanks does a slow meltdown that gives me chills to this day when I think about it. The veneer of control that slowly melts away into unbridled shaking and tears is one of the greatest and most emotional pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. It breaks your heart thinking about what could drive a man to such a break down and, even though we’ve seen all he’s been through and completely understand, it still hits you like a bolt from the blue. While the deeply emotional scene in “Bridge of Spies” isn’t as striking as “Captain Phillips” it resonates all the same because of how we see Donovan behave throughout the film. This may not have been as wrenching a performance as his AIDS suffering lawyer in “Philadelphia” or as sympathetic as “Forrest Gump,” Hanks is still likely to be in the running for a nomination when awards season rolls around.

While Hanks is the focus of the story, the other terrific performance in “Bridge of Spies” comes from Mark Rylance as the stoic Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The scenes he and Hanks share are usually brief but they are powerful. Rylance gives a quiet performance that makes Hanks almost look like Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” His Soviet spy is resigned to whatever fate is to befall him, sometimes at the chagrin of Donovan. More than once in the film Donovan asks Abel if he is worried. Each time the answer is “Would it help?” The unspoken answer is of course no. Rylance plays Abel as both a confused old man as well as a crafty operative. Once he’s caught, the cover of confusion is cast aside and he’s strictly business. The way Rylance plays Abel made me curious about the character. I’d like to see a movie about how he became a Soviet spy and the adventures he had. While the spy world isn’t nearly as glamourous and exciting as we see in “James Bond” movies, I’m certain in the hands of someone like “Bridge of Spies” director Steven Spielberg the story would be more than worth watching.

The movie could be seen as commentary on how easy it is to question ones patriotism in a time of crisis. Donovan’s allegiance to America is questioned a couple of times in the film because he fights for Abel’s rights as a defendant in the courts. Since the attacks of 9/11, the loyalty of Americans has been questioned that believe those being held on terrorism charges in Guantanamo Bay should be accorded the right to representation and trial by jury. Others don’t see the problem of collecting the phone calls, emails and internet history of average Americans without probable cause asking, “Why should I worry since I have nothing to hide?” Despite the “common sense” appeal of that sentiment, Ben Franklin is often quoted as saying “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Franklin’s quote, taken out of context from a letter to the Pennsylvania colonial governor, has very little to do with what we associate it with today; however, the conflict between Donovan and those that wish he wouldn’t try so hard to defend Abel and those that want terrorism suspects quickly tried and convicted and those that believe they should be given the same fair trial as an American citizen is painfully similar. Your opinion of the film might depend on your feelings about that argument.

“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some violence. Gun shots hit Donovan’s house in an attempt to intimidate him. We see Francis Gary Powers roughed up a little by Russian interrogators. We see some people trying to get over the Berlin Wall shot by guards. There are other brief bits of violence. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild but the film does get its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”

Many may find “Bridge of Spies” to be dull as it mostly consists of people talking. I would argue anyone that finds this movie dull is not paying enough attention. The stakes faced by the characters, the time in history and the brilliant acting make the film a true gem in what is often a mound of coal lumps. If you care nothing for the past, the old Soviet Union and the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation then you should avoid this film at all costs. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what America was like during the hottest part of the Cold War, then “Bridge of Spies” is a must see. I would also recommend it if you just like really well done movies.

“Bridge of Spies” gets five enthusiastic stars.

Four more movies hit theatres this week and I’ll see and review at least one of them.

Jem and the Holograms—

The Last Witch Hunter—

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension—

Rock the Kasbah—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Black Mass”

James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) is a violent mobster that runs most of the crime in South Boston. His brother William (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator with no connection to his brother’s criminal doings. FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) grew up with the Bulger brothers in the same low income project. Whitey even saved Connolly when he was getting beat up by a gang of neighborhood boys. Now stationed in the Boston office, Connolly believes he can use Whitey as an informant to get valuable information about the Angiulo Brothers, a powerful crime family with ties to the mafia. Connolly approaches William hoping he will talk to Whitey on his behalf. Initially reluctant, William does mention Connolly to Whitey. When they meet, Whitey is resistant to the idea of helping the FBI but figures he can use them to take out his rivals in the Italian mob. Connolly promises Whitey his gang will have a wide berth with the FBI as long as they aren’t involved with drugs and don’t kill anyone. Whitey provides the location of the Angiulo Brothers headquarters and the FBI plants listening devices to gather intelligence. Whitey then uses what is essentially protection from the FBI to expand his operations and fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of the Italian mob. As time goes by Connolly’s boss Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) and his assistant Robert Fitzpatrick (Adam Scott) notice much of the information attributed to Bulger is actually copied from reports given by other informants. Connolly, who never had any real control over Bulger, is actually giving the mobster information that is leading to the deaths of any FBI informant that gives the agency dirt on Bulger. Connolly’s life is spinning out of control and both Bulger and the FBI are putting pressure on him to deliver results.

Real life crime dramas, or those that feel like real life, have a special place in my heart. Watching the events of “The Godfather” or “GoodFellas” play out, getting to know the characters, seeing them enter into a life of crime believing it to be easily manageable and then finding out it is all consuming and the toll it takes on their relationships and sanity is, if done well, absolutely fascinating. Based on the book “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob” by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Johnny Depp stars in “Black Mass” as James “Whitey” Bulger, the eye of the hurricane, the center of calm surrounded by chaos and destruction. While Bulger doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty from time to time, he leaves most of the death dealing to his associates. Bulger maintains an air of control and absolute knowledge, instilling fear in his underlings by making those he suspects of disloyalty disappear from the face of the Earth. Bulger is never to be questioned, teased, threatened or shown disrespect under threat of death. Depp is consumed by the visage of Bulger, displacing any resemblance to Capt. Jack Sparrow and Charlie Mortdecai and Tonto and Willy Wonka. This is not a man to be trifled with. This is evil with thinning hair and scary blue eyes. This may be the best character work in Depp’s career and he may be up for an Oscar.

“Black Mass” lives and dies on Depp’s performance and the film has plenty of health to spare. The rest of the cast also pumps life into the rest of the characters. Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and, in smaller roles, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Rory Cochrane and others flesh out parts with quality acting work despite limited screen time. The one scene Depp has with Connolly’s wife, played by Nicholson, could have been considered a bit of throw away business; however, the tension and implied threat by Bulger towards his FBI handler’s wife is so thick and menacing, it sticks out as a highlight of a film filled with memorable scenes.

Not all the best parts involve violence and threats of violence. Depp’s Bulger is a doting father in his own way. He has a son with Lindsey Cyr played by Dakota Johnson. He gives the boy some godfatherly advice about handling a situation privately. After all, if no one sees you do something, it didn’t happen. Bulger’s gentleness extends to his neighbors in South Boston, helping an elderly woman get her groceries inside her home and telling his thugs to make sure she has everything she needs. He also has a playful relationship with his mother, letting her win a few hands of Gin while sweetly teasing her about cheating. These moments of normalcy provide sharp contrast and welcome relief from the violence that permeates Bulger’s business dealings.

The entire film is a fascinating look at how sometimes law enforcement enters uneasy alliances with criminals. While Bulger did give the FBI some information that helped bust up the local Mafia, the film says he used his relationship with his former neighbor and now FBI agent to better his own criminal business. The story of how law enforcers and law breakers can make the line between them disappear is certainly troubling but it also creates a myriad of emotional conflicts and ethical compromises that “Black Mass” uses to turn the good guys into questionable characters and the bad guys into borderline heroes. While the story is fairly simple and easy to follow it weaves a complicated tapestry of loyalty and lawlessness and how one can lead to the other.

“Black Mass” is rated R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use. There are numerous on-screen killings including strangulation, multiple gunshot wounds to the body and head shots as well as a couple of bloody on-screen beatings. There is one slang reference to oral sex as well as a slur calling someone a homosexual. There is a brief scene of a character snorting cocaine. Foul language is common throughout the film.

Johnny Depp had been a on a bit of a losing streak recently with less than successful films such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Transcendence,” and “Mortdecai” all losing money (and in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” a great deal of money). While he can always depend on the next installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean,” films, due in 2017, to do well at the box office, Depp probably also needs a film that is a critical success to maintain his status as one of the most in demand actors in the world. “Black Mass” should be the critical darling that allows him to maintain his popularity among film executives. Its relatively low production budget of $53 million probably means a film that will turn a profit after worldwide distribution. This is all good news for Depp; but it also works out well for moviegoers since “Black Mass” is a riveting experience best seen on a big screen. And unlike most other releases at the local multiplex it’s a film you will think about after leaving the theatre.

“Black Mass” gets five stars out of five.

This week, hungry natives, friendly bloodsuckers and an older than average intern desire your attention at theatres; I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Green Inferno—

Hotel Transylvania 2—

The Intern—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.