American Made claims to tell the true story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a notorious drug smuggler who worked for the Medellin Cartel. The film begins with Seal as a pilot for TWA, already doing some small time smuggling on the side as a remedy to his boredom. Then, he is recruited by the CIA to fly reconnaissance missions against Soviet-backed insurgents in Central America. In the process of doing this, he meets Pablo Escobar, and things get much more complicated from there. Through various absurd deals, Seal ends up working for both the CIA and Escobar, getting filthy rich along the way.The purported connection between Seal and the CIA has always been suspect, but the film doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. The movie plays like a drug-fueled fever dream that doubles as a tour of all the shady business that took place in the name of protecting American interests in the Cold War. In the middle of all this is a charming schlub who was never as smart or as competent as he thought he was, inexplicably failing up while America tried everything to could to score points against the Soviet menace.
The movie presents the entire story as a humongous farce. Barry Seal may be at the center of this, but he hardly ever seems to be in control. There are larger forces at work, and Seal is just a ball of unwarranted bravado that gets caught up in all the complex politics at work. He isn’t exactly a good guy, but he isn’t exactly a bad guy, either. He’s certainly not the worst guy in this story: he’s just a cog in this capitalist machine run amok. He is both someone who takes advantage of a broken system and someone who becomes a victim of it.The result is pretty compelling. The film moves quickly, and has an edgy quality to it that makes it feel like things could explode at any time. It feels like the entire movie is as coked-up and desperate as some of the characters become, frantically tying together disparate narrative threads, trying to get a bigger picture that’s difficult to get a handle on. It is this jittery energy that fuels the entire project, the film just barreling through years of complex geopolitical policy as it follows this completely unreliable narrator through an opulent adventure of absurd proportions.Key to all this is the lead performance from Tom Cruise. Cruise is just very good at playing characters who just have to hang on as the world crumbles around him. In the Mission: Impossible movies, he often does this literally. In this film, he makes Seal feel like he’s always scrambling. He’s moving at light speed even when he’s standing still, figuring out angles and keeping an eye for an exit. Cruise’s performance goes a long way in selling the appeal of this film. Most of the story depicted may not be true, but there is still some strange verisimilitude in what Cruise is doing on screen.
American Made is an unreliable film with an unreliable subject. But it knows this, and seems to acknowledge it at every turn. At the very end, there is some indication that this whole story might just be something that Seal made up. But while it might not serve well as a strict history lesson, there is still plenty of value on the things that it touches on. Because this film isn’t really about Barry Seal. He’s just the frantic vessel through which we study the excesses of the Cold War, and all the terrible things that came from those excesses. Cruise provides an entertaining center for the exploration of a pretty strange and complex subject that doesn’t quite get talked about enough.
AMERICAN MADE IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.