Review: Cruise Always Delivers In American Made
There seems to be an air of seriousness around Tom Cruise when he is brought up in a discussion. American Made makes a point of showcasing a rather simple truth – he’s a big goofball. Cruise is no doubt talented, as you don’t achieve a statue like his with merely a big smile and intense running abilities, but he’s never been one worried about undercutting his image on the screen. That’s easy to see here in this story of Barry Seal, a pilot-turned-drug smuggler that rarely loses his cool and glibly goes along with the CIA’s involvement with the Contras. The story could be told in a manner of an “important film” but director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli had something lighter in mind, and it happened to give Cruise the chance to play something we haven’t seen in a while – a regular guy.
Based on a true story, taking place between 1978 and 1986, Cruise’s Barry starts as a bored TWA pilot who is given an opportunity by CIA Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). This means flying a slick-looking plane over South America and taking pictures, which eventually leads to courier missions. The problem is money, as Seal may get more excitement out of this job, but he also has a wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) and kids to provide for. Fortunately, Barry Seal always delivers, and notable South American figures quickly realize that, as they begin tasking Barry with flying cocaine over the border and getting paid more in the process. It leads to even greater shady business endeavors forming.
Stories like this that are rooted in history tend to have similar arcs. You end up having a film that can be divided into two parts. The first half focuses on the rise of a modest individual and tends to be fun and exciting. We then see the fall in the second half, where everything falls apart, and people may even get hurt in the process. It’s not always the case, but common enough to bring up examples ranging from Scarface to War Dogs. The fortunate thing about American Made is how the movie never stops being fun to watch.
That is due in large part to Cruise and how well he acquits himself as a compelling character who is in no way innocent, every bit complicit, but never indecent or angst-ridden. Having followed this film’s production since it was called Mena (named for the town Barry eventually uses to launder all his money), I was initially expecting something more dramatic that fit with a lot of Cruise’s output during the 90s. It’s a relief to see this film play up its events in such a breezy manner. There is also something to enjoy in Cruise taking a step back from frantically running and gunning his way through a film. It may not be as hard-hitting a role as A Few Good Men, which, to be fair, he does have a brief running scene in, but American Made does use Cruise’s abilities to its advantage.
Additionally, the sly work in this film gets across how willing it is to criticize Regan’s America. With news that an actual Top Gun sequel will be produced in the next couple of years, I can’t help but enjoy how well American Made ends up working as a sardonic companion piece of sorts to Cruise’s 1986 global star-making blockbuster. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for director Liman, who’s made some stylish action/thrillers concerned with going against authority, let alone Fair Game, which took on the Plame affair and CIA leak scandals. Handling this subject matter in more direct regard, once again, allows Liman to have his sort of fun, as the Universal production makes good use of the period setting, let alone allowing for some low-tech approaches to making this character comedy-drama exciting enough.
If there is some desire to see the latest big stunt from Cruise, well there is a lot of great aerial footage in this film, and I can’t imagine the actor didn’t at least take some opportunities to fly himself. However, this film moves the opposite direction of Dunkirk’s intense dogfights, as these scenes are punctuated by lots of great comedy. The drama of a crash/landing is undercut in favor of the hilarious method in which Barry attempts to escape. Another scene finds Barry having to wake up a fellow pilot through some innovative measures. It’s good stuff that plays great on a big screen.
American Made manages to get a lot right in how it plays into this subgenre of morally bankrupt guys who rise and fall. I haven’t even mentioned Barry’s involvement with the Medellin Cartel and how impactful that is in his life, but the film does fine work in balancing tension and lightheartedness. Even the tired tropes involving a complaining wife and a person who serves as a plot device to disrupt good times (embodied by a perfectly slimy Caleb Landry Jones) are subverted in some way. There could be an argument to treat this story with less of a carefree attitude, but there is still plenty of sincerity in this story about a thrill-seeking guy who got in way over his head. It also helps that Liman knows how to layer cynicism behind the smile of one of the world’s biggest movie stars.