If Barry Seal, the real-life commercial airline pilot Tom Cruise plays in the historical action-drama American Made, rewatched Cruise’s sky-bound classic Top Gun, his likely reaction to the sight of those magnificent F-14 tomcats would be: “Man, those things could smuggle a lot of guns.” Or “man, those things could smuggle a lot of cocaine.” Or “man, those things could smuggle a lot of cigars”.
If you take the last product and work backwards, this is how Seal’s inventory evolved. He delivered the goods in daring trips on light aircraft during the late 1970s and early ’80s, upping his game after CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) offers him a piece of something greater.
The deal, cemented upon the unveiling of a shiny new plane for Barry, is for the pilot to fly over Central America and capture photographs of communist insurgents. Seal, like any freelancer worth their salt, takes the work where he can get it. Except he never says no. He rides a slippery slope all the way to Pablo Escobar and his cartel, for whom Seal transports large quantities of nose candy.
Tom Cruise is thoroughly entertaining as the amoral wheeler-dealer.
In one scene the pilot’s wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), aggravated by the downsides of her husband’s trade – such as relocating their existence with a couple of hours notice, to flee about-to-raid cops – cracks it while inside a new, furniture-less abode. “I need a stove!” she yells. “I need a fucking machine machine!” Seal responds by reaching into his bag and throwing wads of cash on the floor where those appliances will go.
This reminded me of a moment in the fast food-themed biopic The Founder, when the McDonald brothers draw an outline of a kitchen on a tennis court and rehearse the preparation of food. The two films share other things in common other than their genre: these are tales of fledgling American business in a dog-eat-dog world, led by entrepreneurs who blur the line between anti-hero and villain.
Gary Spinelli’s sort-of true, stranger-than-fiction screenplay in its depictions of roundabout bureaucracy and double-dealing international relations (including the Iran-Contra affair) also reflects a certain, fatalistic contemporary scepticism, caught between laughing at the absurdities of the system and crying about the helplessness of a world that doesn’t appear to be getting any better. In this sense the film, directed by Doug Liman, reflects the ideologies of the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading and David Michôd’s War Machine.
American Made is compelling and unconventional: a film clearly made within the system, designed to look outside it.
The visual structure of American Made is erratic, combining a warm colour scheme (the frame looks like it’s been rubbed in orange rind) with wobbly camerawork from Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone, who shot the 2002 classic City of God. Both flourishes are interesting initially, but overdone: the former bringing to mind a retro Instagram filter, the latter evoking desire for a tripod.
Tom Cruise is thoroughly entertaining as the amoral wheeler-dealer – the kind of role one imagines Woody Harrelson, or a post-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey, filling. We assume the real Seal had charisma too (though perhaps not as much as Cruise) and an understanding that no amount of it can charm the bullet out of a gun.
The previous Liman/Cruise collaboration resulted in 2014’s slam-bang action sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow, a fine film that re-imagined Groundhog Day as a satire about the infallibility of the Hollywood hero. That was your more stock-standard Cruise film, at least in terms of role choice; this one feels like an aberration, or an interesting experiment.
American Made doesn’t have a great deal going on under the bonnet. To mix metaphors, there’s not a lot to chew on, and it pales in comparison to another recent film about a two-faced Yank involved with Escobar’s cartel – the under-appreciated The Infiltrator. There’s no question, however, that it’s compelling and unconventional: a film clearly made within the system, designed to look outside it.