“American Made” Movie Review


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     From a purely entertainment perspective, director Doug Liman’s “American Made” is the kind of popcorn chewing film going experience this past summer for the most part lacked entirely.  From the opening frame, there’s an undeniable energy you feel as the characters are introduced  and embark towards their individual destinies with such purpose, you can’t help but be a willing participant for the ride.  And what a ride it is, with Tom Cruise returning to form and delivering one of his finest recent performances in a role he seems to have been made to play.

     The story centers around the exploits of real life pilot Barry Seal, who early in his flight career became one of the youngest airline pilots to command a regular commercial route.  As “American Made” begins, a title tells us the film is based on a true story, but a quick look at Seal’s Wikipedia page will immediately indicate the amount of liberties the filmmakers took in bringing his story to life.  The timelines in which some events occurred are switched around, and others are just pure fiction.  There are plenty of conspiracy theories the film centers around that have been written about, but never proven.  You could liken the script, written by Gary Spinelli, to that of the Oliver Stone film “JFK”, in which the most important of blanks were filled in with what we can only assume is a best guess as to what actually occurred, and who was behind it.  Who was behind the events depicted in “American Made”, particularly those that occurred at the Intermountain Regional Airport in Mena, Arkansas and surrounding areas,  is where the film could certainly have gone the controversial route (Think about who the Governor of Arkansas was during that time.), but Liman and his collaborators never go there, choosing instead to let Cruise take the reigns amidst a backdrop of such excess, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud.

     In the film, Seal is approached by a CIA agent who calls himself Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) and is asked to participate in a series of surveillance missions in South America.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the U.S. and Russia in the midst of the Cold War, it is explained Russia is suspected of funding insurgent groups in these countries whose intentions are to create Communist governments.  Schafer’s approach of Seal includes the typical “We have a file on you.” introduction, touting his quick rise at TWA and having graduated first in his class during flight school.  In a nutshell, he’s a very good pilot and the CIA wants to furnish him a smaller maneuverable plane to fly over suspected insurgent compounds and take photographs used for intelligence gathering.

     In a one thing leads to another plot, Seal delivers on his surveillance missions, but eventually meets several up and coming drug kingpins during his travels, including none other than Pablo Escobar, who elect to hire him for the purposes of drug smuggling.  “American Made” is certainly not a story of high moral character, as Seal continues to expand on his abilities to transport illegal drugs, all the while fully supported by the CIA.  It gets so crazy that at one point Schafer awards Seal two thousand acres in the small town of Mena, Arkansas, along with an expansive private airport to run his planes out of.  But of course, the CIA has other things in mind, including delivering arms to the Contras, famously dubbed “Freedom Fighters” by President Reagan, as they sought to overthrow the Sandinistas led government in Nicaragua.

     Soon, Seal and his family, which includes his wife, Lucy (played by actress Sarah Wright who is 21 years younger than Cruise) and their three children are living like something out of an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”, instantly falling into the lap of luxury to the point where Seal quips about raking up piles of buried cash discovered by their dogs in their backyard when he can get to it in the morning.  In effect, Liman positions Seal as the protagonist within a decade’s worth of historical events as if he is Forrest Gump, moving about this mine filled landscape without a care in the world.  We never really understand what motivates Seal to make the decisions he makes, but we can assume he is quickly drugged by the power, money, and standing that comes with his ever evolving line of work.

     To watch “American Made” is exactly like viewing a Martin Scorsese mob epic in both its rhythm and narrative structure.  I found the experience similar to that of “Casino” and “Goodfellas”, just with a different, yet equally brutal, version of organized crime.   Every scene seems to pop with hilarious dialogue, interesting and colorful characters, and plenty of 1980s nostalgia, populating any number of intense and harrowing settings.  We always know the stakes are high for all involved, and yet there seems to be something comedic that results in nearly every scene.  It’s Tom Cruise at his most smug and arrogant best.  It’s also one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A-