Barry Seal was a dummy, but when you cast Tom Cruise as the drug smuggling flyboy, he becomes a delightful floozy. Doug Liman’s American Made doesn’t posit that Seal was a hero, martyr, or example for his countrymen to look up to, but rather a thrill seeker who was just kind of bored with jet setting across the globe, flashing a gorgeous smile as he dropped his passengers wherever they wanted to land. He was the type of guy who would turn the autopilot off in the middle of a red eye, just so he could jam the air brakes and wake everyone on board up, quickly blaming the incident on “turbulence”. In short, Barry Seal was kind of a dick, but when you add in the movie star’s trademark charm, he’s a lovable scamp.
That’s what makes Liman’s movie so absorbing, especially as a studio picture (coming from Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment), and an odd entry onto Cruise’s long, strange resume. American Made presents us with a central figure whose dimness is exploited by the government – here represented by shady CIA man ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) – who magically transforms Seal’s chump change Cuban cigar running into covert spy photos over Central America. This is pre-Iran Contra, mind you (becoming the catalyst for that Reagan Administration idiocy), so snapshots give way to coke rustling for an infant Medellin Cartel, before morphing into full-blown human trafficking, as Seal becomes the middle man for a training camp that’s set up on his newly acquired bagman airstrip. All the while, the Syracuse Kid bumbles and bullshits his way into a gaudy redneck compound in Mena, Arkansas for his young wife (Sarah Wright) and budding brood. Though were it not for Cruise, we wouldn’t believe this dummy to be capable of swindling a tube of toothpaste from his local Wal-Mart.
Truth be told, there’s something almost subversive about casting Cruise as a man seduced by the “up by your bootstraps” mentality of the '80s Republican regime. Cruise is an avatar for the boy next door thanks to that decade’s pop classics, such as Risky Business (’83), All the Right Moves (’83), and Top Gun (’86). In fact, Seal almost plays like the wash out version of Maverick – an ace who couldn’t cut it under the military’s strict codes of conduct. Instead, he wanted to do nothing more than chase tail and get wasted, becoming a private buccaneer of the blue skies; an adrenaline junkie who realized that TWA doesn’t pay shit, and the benefits are worse. So, he “serves his country” another way, by going undercover and providing aviator-sporting men in suits with Intel, too naïve (or stupid) to comprehend that they’ll disavow any knowledge of his existence should he get shot down and captured. Cruise’s All-American charm is now servicing the illicit crevices of the US Government – a poster child for his country’s intelligence community who can’t even locate Nicaragua or Colombia on a map.
Part of what makes Seal such an equally fascinating and frustrating central character is that, outside of leaving TWA to work for his initial front corporation, he has little to no agency of his own, getting bounced from one nefarious CIA and cartel op (which are usually intertwined) to the next. Barry never really has a main goal beyond making more money (which starts tumbling out of closets on top of him). There are no grand “as far back as I can remember…” declarations, a la Henry Hill in Goodfellas (’90). The most ambition Seal shows is reading a gaudily covered biography of Al Capone, years after his ’78 introduction into the Agency. No, where Cruise gets to have a little fun and inject his usual cocksure nature into Seal is during the tiny moments of operational management – telling kingpins Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) that their overweight watchdog needs to exit his first flight load because he’s “fat as fuck” and dragging down the already overloaded plane. Barry’s a hustler, baby. He was never cut out to be a boss, no matter how many pilots these organizations subsequently allow him to employ to run their drugs and machine guns.
Barry’s inability to navigate his days with any sort of real authority is also reflected in his home life, where he’s constantly paying for improvements, and then hiring his wife’s straight out of the trailer park brother (Caleb Landry Jones) to do nothing more than sweep the hangar floor so he’ll stop swearing around his kids. Let’s take a moment now to talk about Jones, who may be at the peak of his skeeviness here. In movies like Heaven Knows What (’14), and this year’s Twin Peaks: The Return revival, Jones oozed a disgusting lecherousness that repulsed you any time he was on screen. In American Made, he’s a walking wound; a virus; despair for the human race made flesh. Constantly shirtless so that his pasty chicken chest is exposed, and sporting a mullet that would make Kid Rock erect, there’s nothing nice that can be said about his screen presence, but that’s also what makes him so impressionable. Jones’ commitment to sleaze is a marvel, and as soon as he shows up, you know he’s going to contribute to the defeat of Barry Seal.
Like Barry’s devil may care attitude, Doug Liman’s visual style is breezy, owning just enough blown out grain to feel like a lighthearted Tony Scott picture (only Scott would’ve certainly found a way to insert much more heinous violence, of which there is none here). Cinematographer César Charlone (City of God) layers a sunny haziness onto the digital photography, allowing each country Barry jets off to possess its own unique, brown or green texture. Editor Andrew Mondshein keeps the near decade’s worth of self-chronicle (narrated via VHS tapes Barry makes while on the run) chugging along at an almost breakneck clip. Though this subject may seem heavy on paper, American Made is still a dexterous slice of pop cinema, maintaining sharp black humor courtesy of Gary Spinelli’s punchy script. Even as we’re waiting for Barry’s fall, we’re laughing along at his folly.
Many of Liman’s movies revolve around individuals who harbor secret identities or other selves. This fascination could be the direct result of the filmmaker’s father, Arthur L. Liman, who was the chief counsel to the Senate Committee during their ’87 Iran Contra investigation (an incident that was almost a direct result of the gun-running Barry Seal performed on the CIA’s behalf in American Made). That insider’s perspective might also at least partially explain the anti-US attitude that permeates this movie. Through the course of its speedy sub-two hour runtime, American Made presents no antagonists beyond the monolithic presence of the United States government. The cartel men may pose a threat of bodily harm, but never endanger Barry’s future, or show indifference to his economic plight quite like Schafer and the rest of the analysts. By the end, the movie’s title takes on an ironic double meaning, as Liman’s tale is much more about the way systems can crush an individual, rather than help lift them up out of the trappings of their environment. Barry Seal is virtually unmade by America once we get right down to it.