In real life, Barry Seal was a TWA pilot fired in 1972 after being charged with smuggling plastic explosives into Mexico.
In the movie, Barry Seal is a too-cool-for-school iconoclast who quits TWA, just up and walks away from a passenger plane on the tarmac, because he speaks for the everyman who can no longer stand the rote boredom and suffocating conformity of corporate life.
In real life, Barry Seal flew tons of cocaine into America for various drug lords, including Pablo Escobar. It was only after he was busted that he began working for the DEA as an informant.
In the movie, Barry Seal is recruited by the CIA. Then, on America’s behalf, he has an awesome time photographing communist guerillas in South and Central America, smuggling illegal guns to Ronald Reagan’s secret Contra army, and even smuggling the Contras themselves into Arkansas so they can be trained and equipped to destroy the communist scourge. Oh, and he works for Pablo Escobar.
In real life, Barry Seal was an overweight slob who buried his fellow Americans in the poison of drugs; who did not care enough about his family to even enter the witness protection program.
In the movie, Barry Seal is Tom freakin’ Cruise, a swaggering, charismatic smuggler living the high-life on his own terms. Not only is he a loving family man married to a centerfold, he is a slick-as-snot Forrest Gump with a front-row seat to history, a glib charmer who meets everyone from Manuel Noriega to Oliver North — even a young George W. Bush!
My favorite flick of the 1990s is Oliver Stone’s JFK, so it is not as though the movie fan in me cares all that much about being told the truth. In the case of director Doug Liman’s American Made, though, the truth might have been a whole lot more interesting.
No one can deny that Liman’s second pairing with Cruise (the first was 2014’s terrific Edge of Tomorrow) is filled with a number of very good scenes, aided in no small way by Tom Cruise at his Tom Cruise-iest — the insanely likable bad boy always in control, even while being swarmed by every law enforcement agency under the sun. The problem is that the sum of those parts do not add up to much.
Cool stuff happens and happens … and happens … and happens. But after an hour or so, you begin to wonder when the real plot will kick in, bite and take hold. You assume that at some point the story has to be about something more, something bigger than a montage of Barry’s highlife, close calls, and how good those sunglasses look on Tom Cruise.
There is not even much of a character here, not a whole lot of Barry under the hood. Oh, he is plenty resourceful and a hopeless adrenaline junkie. But where is that third dimension — depth? Where is the glaring flaw that gnaws away at us, adds some tension because we know Achilles must eventually be brought down.
From Public Enemy to Little Caesar, White Heat, Rififi, Get Carter, Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather I & II, Scarface, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Menace II Society, American Me, Casino, Blow, Sexy Beast, New Jack City, Layer Cake, American Gangster, and American Hustle, we LOVE these movies, we worship anything that allow us, if only for a couple of hours, to vicariously live a criminal life.
And, yes, we idolize gangsters.
Even as we are horrified by their crimes, as red-blooded Americans, we still, and always will, admire those who choose to live outside of the law rather than conform; choose to write their own destiny (even if it ends with an early death or prison) rather than punch a clock; choose to take no crap rather than eat it every single day at work, in traffic, in the mundane vicious circle of life as a civilian.
The big problem with American Made is that that is all there is — scene after scene after scene of its own mundane vicious circle, of little more than Tom Cruise proving he is still a movie star’s movie star (which he unquestionably is).
The fact that we have seen so many American Mades so many times before, is certainly not an issue. There is a reason those movies listed above are among the most rewatchable ever made. One more title would only add to a pile where one more is always welcome.
What is not welcome, though, is one more that does not have a second or third act, that is nothing more than over-caffeinated, anti-Reagan propaganda; another opportunity for deeply-committed-actor Cruise to be seen really flying that plane, two hours of watching the immortal Pete “Maverick” Mitchell playing grab-ass with drug kingpins and federal agents in the locker room that is his life.