American MadeReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/29/17 11:15:58
With its combination of prodigious amounts of guns and drugs, a relentlessly kinetic visual style and a jam-packed soundtrack that seems to resist bursting into “Gimme Shelter” only by a Herculean display of self-restraint—pretty much the only areas that demonstrates even trace amounts of such a thing—“American Made” is a film that seems to have been custom-made to inspire reviews that will compare it to the films of Martin Scorsese. On those superficial levels, it probably does deserve some comparison to such classics as “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” However, those films also contained a certain degree of irony and moral inquiry that served as the ultimate price for all the over-the-top fun and games and which kept them from coming across merely as celebrations of the bad behaviors that they depicted in such intense detail, even if some observers did their best to overlook those aspects. Those details are exactly what are missing from “American Made” and it is their absence that makes what could have been a fascinating exploration of an especially combustible collision of drugs, corruption and America’s misadventures in Central America in the 1980s into a frustratingly glib celebration of bad behavior that has some entertaining moments here and there but which feels less like a lost Scorsese classic and more like the second coming of the late Ted Demme.The film tells the true—sort of—story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a TWA pilot and when we first meet him in 1978, he is himself pretty much running on auto-pilot. He is exhausted by a never-ending domestic flight routine that may have a good health plan but which keeps him away from wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) and their kids back in Baton Rouge and leaves him so profoundly bored that he livens up his routine by faking turbulence in the middle of flights and occasionally smuggling Cuban cigars into the country. It is through the cigars that he is approached by CIA man Schafer (Domhall Gleeson) with an offer he cant refuse—leave TWA and go to work undercover for the agency by using his piloting skills to fly down to Central America and take reconnaissance photos of the hotbeds of political activity going on down there at the time. Seal proves to be a natural at this and before too long, his duties expand to include serving as a bagman for the government bagman by taking money down to Panama in exchange for information on mutual enemies being supplied by a high-ranking military official by the name of Manuel Noriega.
Seal’s piloting skills also come to the attention of the Medellin Cartel, an up-and-coming drug-smuggling concern run out Colombia by one Pablo Escobar and Seal soon finds himself bringing cocaine up to the U.S. and dropping it off mid-air over the swamps of Baton Rouge. He soon lands in hot water but Schafer relocates him and his family to a new home base in a small Arkansas town that includes his own private airport and a plan showing all the areas where the feds are monitoring air activity. In exchange, they take advantage of the connection between Escobar and the Contras, the soldiers trying to stop the overthrow of the government by the leftist Sandinistas, by employing Seal to deliver guns to them along with the drugs and, eventually, to bring the would-be Contras up to Arkansas for CIA-sponsored training.
All of this activity and double-dealing makes Seal into an incredibly wealthy man—one with so much loose cash spilling out of every corner of his house and every bank vault in town that he is forced to simply bury millions of dollars in his back yard—but his smirky belief that he can just keep all of his illicit plates spinning indefinitely proves to be somewhat misinformed. His activities attract the attentions of any number of government agencies and he gets additional heat when his screw-up brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) gets arrested. Eventually, Schafer decides to cut all ties with Seal and just leave him hanging but even then, Seal manages to avoid paying the piper as a new group of officials seeks to exploit his skills, his connections with Escobar and his willingness to leap into things without thinking with a new endeavor that ends up setting a fateful chain of events into motion.
The opening credits of “American Made” state that the film was “Based on a true story,” which tends to be Hollywood code for “We made a lot of stuff up” and that appears to be the case here as well. While the broad parameters of the narrative do conform to real life, just a cursory glance at information about Seal reveals any number of changes that have been made along the way. (Seal’s departure from TWA, portrayed here as a heroic stick-it-to-the-man bit of personal rebellion in 1978, actually involved getting busted for smuggling plastic explosives in 1972.) The chief problem with the film is not so much that it fails to conform to the facts of Seal’s story as much as it is that neither director Doug Liman (who previously collaborated with Cruise on the wildly underrated “Edge of Tomorrow” or whatever the hell it is being called now) nor screenwriter Gary Spinelli seem to have much of a solid idea of what they are trying to say with his story. It feels more like a collection of scenes chronicling the bizarre things that Seal did instead of a fully thought-out narrative that lends those incidents some kind of structure and meaning.
Some of these bits are amusing enough on their own, I suppose, but the whole thing is kind of disjointed and the secondary characters are given such short shrift throughout that you get the sense that Liman shot a much longer movie only to cut a lot of it out later on. (Jesse Plemons and Lola Kirke, as the local sheriff and his suspicious wife, are in it so briefly that when their names are given prominent billing during the end credits, you have to rack your brain to remember who they even played.) As a result, once the film arrives at its concluding scenes, when Seal’s entire world begins to collapse and his ability to somehow float above the fray finally fails him, none of what happens to him has any real dramatic impact, a fact that the film tries to paper over with a wealth of new information and complications that will probably fly over the heads of any viewers for whom the name “Eugene Hasenfus” does not immediately resonate with familiarity.
The best idea that “American Made” has to offer involves casting Tom Cruise, whose hit films “Risky Business” and “Top Gun” made him the toothy poster boy for the rampant materialism and the lighter side of military expansion of the very same era when Seal’s story was happening in real life, in a role that theoretically stands as a rebuke to those notions. Although his work here doesn’t quite reach the heights of his best performances, it shows him giving a far more committed turn than he has bothered to attempt in such paint-by-number potboilers as the Jack Reacher films, “Oblivion” and, God help us, that nightmarish-for-the-wrong-reasons “The Mummy.” If he doesn’t quite come across as the kind of sleaze bag that the real-life Seal presumably was, he is able to take his still-potent on-screen charm and channel it in ways to suggest how Seal could have played so many people for so long while flying by the seat of his pants, literally and metaphorically. The others in the cast are okay—though I might gently suggest that Caleb Landry Jones never again appear in a film that requires him to walk around shirtless for any amount of time—but their collective lack of screen time does not allow any of them to make much of an overall impression.There has been a recent spate of films that have taken true stories involving sleazy and corrupt people getting involved with wild schemes that extend to the highest levels of the governmental spectrum and reconfigured them as darkly comedic star vehicles. If “American Hustle” is arguably the best of that particular sub-genre and the odious “War Dogs” is one of the worst, then “American Made” falls pretty much squarely in the middle of those two—it is funnier and not nearly as smugly repellent as “War Dogs” but it lacks the craft, cohesion and wit of “American Hustle.” The story of Barry Seal is indeed a fascinating one but this film just doesn’t know what to do with it—it is the kind that makes you want to immediately seek out a book or straightforward documentary that offer a fuller picture of what transpired. It has its ambitions but in trying to work as a raucous action-comedy, a critique of the shady side of the Reagan and a vehicle for Tom Cruise, it winds up expending an enormous amount of energy before the entire enterprise eventually collapses. This, in the end, may the closest that the film every gets to truly walking in Seal’s footsteps but by then, it is a bit too late.
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