Oh, Tom Cruise.
You magnificent and problematic bastard.
Tom Cruise has become so associated with Scientology and all of its creepy excesses that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s always been a pretty good actor and he’s actually getting better with age. In the Mission Impossible films, he’s proven that he can be a better James Bond than Daniel Craig. In Edge of Tomorrow, he and Emily Blunt brought real depth to what could have just been another generic action film. Even as bad as The Mummy may have been, the film failed because of a bad script and bad direction. Tom Cruise’s performance was actually one of the few things in that movie that did work.
And then there’s American Made.
Directed by Edge of Tomorrow‘s Doug Liman, American Made is supposedly based on a true story. At least as portrayed in this film, Barry Seal was an airline pilot who, in the late 70s, was recruited by the CIA to fly over Central America and take pictures of communist rebels. An adrenaline junkie who had grown bored with his day job, Barry quickly agreed and even got a thrill out of the rebels shooting at him as he flew over. Barry was then recruited by the Medellin Cartel and soon, he was flying drugs into the United States while still working for the CIA. While the President was declaring war on drugs, Barry was attending secret meetings at the White House. The CIA set Barry up with his own airport in Mena, Arkansas, where he both trained anti-communist guerillas and arranged for the importation of cocaine into the United States. This went on until both the CIA and the Colombians decided that Barry knew too much and was expendable.
It’s a pretty wild story and, at the very least, some of it is true. It is generally acknowledged that Barry Seal worked for both the CIA and the Medellin Cartel and that the little town of Mena, Arkansas was, briefly, the very unlikely center of America’s drug trade. The film places most of the blame on Ronald Reagan and the Bushes. Of course, if you ask any of the older folks in Arkansas, they’ll tell you that Bill Clinton not only knew about the cocaine coming in to Mena but that he also snorted at least half of it up his nose. Director Doug Liman, himsef, has said that American Made was inspired by the life of Barry Seal but that its shouldn’t necessarily be considered a biopic.
Despite a few scenes where the film tries a bit too hard to duplicate the style of American Hustle, American Made is an entertaining film. That’s largely due to Tom Cruise’s performance as Barry. Cruise plays Barry Seal as man who, no matter what the situation, always managed to have a good time and, watching American Made, you can’t help but suspect that Tom Cruise was having an equally good time playing him. Cruise is at his most relaxed and charismatic in American Made, even managing to deliver his lines in a passable Southern accent. (The rest of the cast is less successful, too often sounding quasi-Texan even though they’re playing Arkansans.) Even after his whole operation has fallen apart and Barry knows that his days are numbered, you get the feeling that he wouldn’t change a thing. He just seems like he’s happy to have had the experience.
(For me, Cruise’s best moment comes after Barry crashes his airplane in a suburban neighborhood. Stepping out the wreckage, covered in cocaine, Barry steals a kid’s bike and says, “You didn’t see me!” before triumphantly riding off. It’s potentially cartoonish but Cruise sells the scene and makes it work. I was sad to discover, while researching this review, that this apparently didn’t actually happen.)
I liked American Made. It never quite becomes the savage critique of American foreign policy that it appears to want to be but it’s still an entertaining film and a reminder that, weird religious beliefs aside, Tom Cruise is actually a pretty good actor.