Drugs. Guns. Money laundering. Family.
These are just a few of the stakes in “American Made,” a new movie based on a wild and true story. The film never lets us forget this. With its cheerful, high-octane energy, the movie delivers a perfect blend of action, tension and humor.
The movie opens with a juxtaposition of images of late 1970s America, including President Jimmy Carter speaking about the nation’s “crisis of confidence.” This montage deftly hints at the importance of politics to the plot. In a society plagued by malaise, we are introduced to Barry Seal (Tom Cruise). Seal is a TWA pilot who seems to be living an bland and predictable life. His home life, namely his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), is his only source of real happiness.
Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a case officer with the CIA, recruits Seal to fly reconnaissance missions over various Central American countries. The movie takes place during the Cold War tensions of the 1970s and 80s. Central America is threatened by Soviet-backed insurgent activity. Suffice it to say, the CIA will not abide this.
“We’re building nations,” proclaims Schafer with a certain righteousness. “It’s America at its finest.”
The stakes are heightened when Seal becomes involved with the Medellin Cartel, one of South America’s most notorious drug rings. Seal is asked to import cocaine to the United States and he is quick to adapt. He quickly develops a detailed plan to import the cocaine to the United States. This involves dropping shipments over Louisiana’s bayous, among other things.
The CIA makes no effort to stop Seal’s drug smuggling and covertly seems to encourage it. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and numerous other law enforcement agencies are not as lax. Suffice it to say, the law comes knocking. Seal delights in evading the authorities. There are several comic scenes in which Seal, gleefully piloting a helicopter, engages in air battle with the authorities. In another memorable scene, the law enforcement powers that be all converge on Seal, demanding their own particular brand of justice. Moments like these give the movie a great deal of infectious humor.
The movie constantly accentuates the crazy over the period of eight years (1978-1986), and this is its strength. We start with Seal leading reconnaissance missions, followed by Seal’s comical drug-smuggling efforts. Just when you thought it had hit its apex, the movie introduces another angle. In this case, it involves Seal smuggling arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. Drugs, weapons, and power all inevitably intersect and the movie really highlights these shifting dynamics well. Yet the movie doesn’t necessarily take a good guy, bad guy approach to its characters, and that is an inherent strength.
One of the movie’s greatest strength is Tom Cruise. As an 80s movie icon, Cruise is a fine casting choice for this period film. Cruise manages to make Seal likeable and empathetic. In particular, he does a fine job of accentuating Seal’s devil-may-care confidence and amoral attitudes about doing business. In many ways, Cruise’s role is evocative of one of his earliest movies, “Risky Business.” That 1983 classic sees Cruise’s equally likable but scheming protagonist turn his home into a brothel.
Should you see this movie? Absolutely. Especially if you like action, espionage and humor.
Another strength is the film’s ability to balance two stories: There is the narrative of Seal’s activities with the CIA and then there is his family life. Seal doesn’t adhere to a set moral ethos. Yet, at the same time he strives to give his family luxury and comfort. The movie deftly illustrates the evolution of their lives, as they acquire a palatial mansion and other material goods. Seal’s own work also inevitably means tensions in his home life and the movie highlights that intersection nicely.
“I had my fingers in every pie on the rack,” Seal boasts of his missions. And we can’t imagine him doing anything else after seeing “American Made.”
More about “American Made”:
Director: Doug Liman
Running Time: 115 mins.
Playing at: Cinemark Movie Bistro and XD, Cinemark Fort Collins 16
Fun fact: Tom Cruise’s first R-rated movie since “Tropic Thunder” (2008).
Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dudesosad.