In a way, American Made feels like a Martin Scorsese impression. A number of his films, like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Wolf of Wall Street are based on true-life events that don’t really end well, but are propelled toward tragedy of varying scale by a kind of cavalier, masculine energy and aggressive style–the road to hell is fun and fast paced, with rapid-fire editing, whimsical narrative asides, and a great soundtrack. The filmmakers here are not Scorsese and this movie doesn’t quite stick the thematic landing, but the sweet-and-sour taste it leaves in your mouth is not without its appeal.
In a nutshell, this is the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise at his most shaggy-dog charming, his natural smarm serving the picture rather than working against it), a hotshot TWA pilot who becomes a central player in what would eventually become the Iran-Contra scandal. Recruited by the CIA to run spy missions to South and Central America, Barry catches the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), a partner in Pablo Escobar’s (Mauricio Mejía) drug cartel and soon is moving cocaine one way, guns another, and making more money than he and wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) can find suitcases to bury it in. Bullied into escalating terrible choices by the cartel on one end and the smiling Mr. “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson, predictably the film’s standout performance) on the other, Barry’s life is pulled apart as he allows himself to be exploited by forces of historical and international gravitas.
Whatever the real Barry Seal may have been (and lord knows, based on this), Cruise’s Barry isn’t exactly stupid but he is naive. As he narrates his life into a camcorder, squirreled away in a hotel room, he expresses little regret–“maybe I should’ve asked a few more questions” is as reflective as he gets. He isn’s forced to reflect; his bad behavior has been repeatedly excused because it serves larger agendas about which he doesn’t seem particularly concerned. Even in the face of his own destruction, he regards his despicable-but-significant accomplishments, either unable or unwilling to be cognizant, guilty, or angry about what they represent.
Instead, director Doug Liman (probably best known for his work on the original Bourne trilogy) and screenwriter Gary Spinelli try to pull a reaction to Barry’s circumstance out from the structure of the film itself. It’s quiet, but rears its head between the jokes about raking money off the lawn and the zero-G sex scenes. Look at the bumper sticker about “pussies” with “cold feet” on the wall of “Schafer’s” cubicle as he repeatedly misreads the situation in Nicaragua, Panama, and Columbia. Look at the ironic use of real footage of Ronald Reagan (who “made his way up from that monkey movie to the White House, so he must know what he’s doin'”). Look at the last, patriotic words Barry speaks into the camera before being cut off by the tape going to sharp static. Reading these as cues that are trying to make a political statement gives direction to the movie’s flash and energy. It elevates what would otherwise be a passable but by now run-of-the-mill crime comedy/drama into a stab at more meaningful satire.
The film’s flaw, then, is that it doesn’t hit these notes quite hard enough, in part because this is not a movie interested in psychological depth. Despite Cruise’s best attempts, Barry comes off as a guy just sort of along for the adventure, without the nuance to be really sympathetic, to feel worth mythologizing. The stylistic excesses of the best films working in this mode feel like natural outgrowths of their larger-than-life characters, so without a better understanding of what makes Barry tick, it’s a little hard to justify the film being as fun as it is.
But it is fun–brightly colored and well paced, full of panache and pithy dialog. If the statement it’s trying to make about… what? American arrogance in foreign policy? Our culture of materialist exploitation? The extent to which macho thrill-seeking behavior informs real-world, large-scale decisions? The inevitability of basic human greed? If that statement gets lost a bit, it’s still has fun to fall back on which goes a long way toward making it watchable. And its a necessary counterbalance to an ending that feels cynical precisely because it registers as a little confused, letting whoever it is that are the real villains here (even if it’s Barry himself) off lighter than they should be allowed.
I left the theater feeling as though I should feel angry, which is why I can’t totally write this film off. There’s something here, some examination of real historical and cultural forces at play, some deeper fascination in this kind of easy, breezy amorality that’s not entirely without wit or direction. With a little bit more meat on its bones, it could’ve been one of the year’s best films. It doesn’t get there, and so doesn’t go anywhere we haven’t seen, but it hangs together enough to be worth watching.