Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal in "American Made," a 2017 action-drama from Universal Pictures and director Doug Liman.

American Made

Around the time that former pilot Barry Seal adopted a desperate-drifter lifestyle to evade a Colombian cocaine cartel, Tom Cruise was filming love scenes for Top Gun — for what says “heterosexual overtones” like a man and woman getting it on as curtains billow and Berlin blares on the soundtrack?

American Made is a similarly romanticized story of a high-flying hotshot, but not because it also features a handful of sex scenes — more like brief thrust scenes, but hey man, you gotta get that R rating to make sure audiences know this is a Serious Movie™.

No, it’s romanticized in its contortions of history and in its casting of Tom Cruise as Seal, a man who more closely resembled Tom Parker.

Barry Seal was a Baton Rouge good-ole-boy who had graduated from U.S. Army Airborne School but never completed basic training the selection or training process for Special Forces. Stuck in a dead-eyed commercial-air TWA job (which the movie suggests he held much longer than he actually did), Seal’s lone jolts of excitement involved switching autopilot off mid-flight to wake too-comfortable travelers and smuggling Cuban cigars via Canada. (In actuality, Seal was busted for smuggling explosives to Mexico, but again, Tom Cruise!)

In real life, Seal turned to the Feds only after he’d been caught one too many times and in exchange for immunity. The movie suggests the CIA offered him an out on the cigar-smuggling charge in exchange for reconnaissance photography of Central American Communist insurgencies. But the dominoes of bad deeds soon fell, and Seal chose to smuggle cocaine for Medellin maniac Pablo Escobar and, later, guns for the Contras.

Seal once had so much money he couldn’t spend it fast enough – especially in the no-horse town of Mena, Arkansas, where (again, according to the movie) the CIA set him up with a hidden runway and enough acreage to (literally) train Contra armies. As fast and loose as American Made may play with the facts, there’s no disputing that, by the mid-1980s, Seal found himself blindsided by one enemy in particular.

Tom Cruise can do any movie he wishes, so all Tom Cruise movies are, in a sense, about Tom Cruise’s wishes. American Made is not, as it could (and maybe should) have been, a dark-universe inversion of Top Gun wherein a pilot played by Tom Cruise feels the need … the need for greed. Instead, it is just the result of Tom Cruise watching The Wolf of Wall Street or Pain & Gain and tailoring an off-the-rack version into a movie where Tom Cruise essentially plays the least interesting version of Tom Cruise more than he does Barry Seal. (The movie never pretends this isn’t a Tom-Cruise-in-full-name joint, so why should this review?) American Made finds it funny to name a government-front company IAC when the film is itself a pale anagram of any other party’s-over movie you’ve ever seen.

Tom Cruise portrays Seal as a man daring himself to do increasingly dangerous things at the behest of those throwing him sacks of money and more or less getting away with it — just like Tom Cruise, essentially, for whom catastrophe strikes in the manner of bad box office and not a barrage of bullets. On more than one occasion, Seal refers to himself as “the gringo who always delivers,” which I’m guessing more than one Spanish-language critic has said in description of Tom Cruise at some point. All of this feels inauthentic to Seal’s real-deal scumbaggery and indicative of Tom Cruise’s present disinterest (unlike Leonardo DiCaprio) to upend a likable persona as an irredeemable true-life dick.

Would it kill us to see Tom Cruise lose that tooth, sell his squadron of pilots on a life of danger or respond to a chilling, clarifying death in his family with anything more than a punchline? Even the eminently lovable Dwayne Johnson was willing to let us see him flip someone’s severed hand on a grill in Pain & Gain. The film’s final scene is also a major copout, staged as though Tom Cruise had died before this movie came out and no one wanted to be insensitive to his demise.

Gary Spinelli’s screenplay lacks any sort of satirical berserker wallop — embarrassingly assuring us to “believe it” as “it gets crazy from here.” And Doug Liman, reteaming with Tom Cruise after the enjoyably absurd Edge of Tomorrow, is no Martin Scorsese … or Michael Bay, for that matter. There are nuggets of an intriguing idea that small-town Arkansas, of all places, became an epicenter of the Iran-Contra scandal. But Liman casts three well-established young character actors like Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke and Caleb Landry Jones, strands them in Tom Cruise’s wake for endless backslaps-and-braying-laughs montages, and lazily assumes their characters would all be complicit in corruption rather than seduced. The less said of Seal’s home life, the better, given Sarah Wright’s go-nowhere wife role that more or less makes you say, “Hey, that’s Millicent Gergich!” the whole time.

All told, American Made resembles the sort of movie HBO made before they became true prestige products. There’s arguably more weight to The Mummy’s plane-crash scene. (Only because of The Mummy and Jack Reacher: Terrible is this the most tolerable Tom Cruise movie since 2015, but it’s clear, and sad, that Tom Cruise is just more or less marking time between Missions: Impossible now.)

From the nice or nothing at all department, American Made does serve up a nice color scheme courtesy of cinematographer César Charlone, achieving the desaturation of a worn topographical map in a textbook, and an amusing performance from Domhnall Gleeson as Schafer, the CIA spook who courts Seal. It’s clear Schafer relishes the opportunity to sell his job as anything other than its own cube-farm hell, and Gleeson persuasively personifies the infantilism behind the infrastructure through which so men and machines were moved, and ultimately buried, like a giant bureaucratic sandbox.

Otherwise, American Made treats this time capsule of craven, corrupt conservatism as a Forrest Gump-lite romp. (Look, there’s Oliver North! And Seal is sitting next to a young W! Hardy har har.) Tom Cruise has finally made another movie about a pilot. Too bad this one has the personality of a drone.



An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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