Absolution. Welcome back, Tom Cruise, all is forgiven after the misjudged, miscreant mess of The Mummy. AMERICAN MADE is hip, hep and a hoot, and gives Cruise a character to inhabit rather than being a mere cypher action automaton.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a hotshot airman who gets caught up in a shadowy division of the government—running crates of AK-47s and kilos of cocaine—he makes a fortune as a key player in the Iran-contra affair. From trading arms for hostages to training forces of Central and South American kingpins, Barry becomes an improbable hero working against the system. So, how does he sleep at night? Well, it’s all legal if you do it for the good guys.
According to the press notes, screenwriter Gary Spinelli had recently seen Argo, which had piqued his interest in other untold CIA scandals of the era. After a bit of research on key players of the time, he had come across a man called Barry Seal, a fascinating character in recent American history—one whose devilish swagger and zest for life affected all he met.
In AMERICAN MADE, we are introduced to Barry as captain of a TWA airliner, an accomplished aviator reduced to cruise control and automatic pilot. The thrill of flying has dissipated and he spices up his routine life by taking the airliner’s controls from time to time to create a little turbulence, and also by smuggling contraband Cuban cigars.
Sprung by the CIA, he is given the option of serving time in the penitentiary or being sequestered into the secret world. Seal can’t wait to trade TWA for CIA.
Set up with a plane and a company called AIC stationed out of a small town in Arkansas, Barry was sanctioned by the CIA to run guns into Central America, especially to arm the Contras in their struggle against the Sandinista in Nicaragua.
From the late 70s through the 80s, Seal was intricately involved in various facets of the U.S. government, as well as his double dealings with the Colombians and the Medellín Cartel. In sum, Seal had an inordinate role in a scandal that shadowed Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office.
In the land of opportunity dwells the land of opportunism and Seal seized all opportunities presented to him—however potentially illegal they appeared—to make money, lead an adrenaline fueled life and, on one level, “help” the government accomplish its fluid mission of arming Nicaraguan freedom fighters against the Sandinistas.
A major part of the film’s appeal is the larrikin quality of Seal, a real rascal, an amiable family man, and seemingly so naïve about his exploits as a drug runner and arms merchant that it’s impossible not to like him.
Audacious and larger than life, AMERICAN MADE is the quintessential American success story, Seal was recruited for surveillance activities on communist activities in Central America, and ultimately to deliver weapons to rebels in that area who were fighting communists.
The U.S. war on drugs and the war on communism had two fronts, and Seal knew them equally well. He had an empty aeroplane and an “If it absolutely had to be there overnight and it was illegal” reputation. A regular felonius Fedex. Since he was conducting illegal operations with the CIA’s help, he could get in and out of the country undetected. Well, there was no point flying back with an empty aeroplane, so Barry thought he might as well bring drugs back with it. So he ended up working for both the U.S. government and for the Colombian drug cartel at the same time, and unbeknownst to the other. He played both sides, and became fabulously wealthy while he was doing it. Still, it was never about the money for Barry. It was about the excitement, the challenge and all about the flying.
This is wonderfully illustrated in the film with fabulous aerial work throughout.
Cruise’s characterisation of Seal breaks out of his recent cookie cutter performances – like the mouldy mimeography of The Mummy and the exceedingly beneath his grasp, Reacher – and gives us a fusion of Risky Business’ Joel and Top Gun’s Maverick.
Director Doug Liman fuses facets of his early sass and swagger cinema, Swingers and Go!, with aspects of his CIA capers, The Bourne Identity and Fair Game.
Cinematographer Cesar Charlone, incomparable lenser of The Constant Gardener, shoots AMERICAN MADE through with a hot molten gold, an auric hue of glitter and burnished gloss, that suggests both an Icarus too close to the sun aspect and an all that glitter can turn bitter thematic.
AMERICAN MADE restores faith in American made studio pictures.