Doug Liman (2017)
In real life, Barry Seal was a drug smuggler turned DEA informant and, ultimately, a CIA tool (on one assignment) involved in the Reagan White House’s obsession with ridding Nicaragua of the communist Sandinistas by any means necessary. So when Doug Liman’s new film American Made says that it is “based on a true story,” it does have this kernel of truth. And in fact the last twenty minutes of the film contain more actual historical facts than the first ninety minutes, which are largely the product of the fertile imagination of screenwriter Gary Spinelli (Stash House). Spinelli was certainly inspired by Seal’s improbable real life and the geopolitics of the early ’80s, as well as by the style of Martin Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas, which this film resembles in its mood and narrative technique.
In American Made, it’s Tom Cruise who takes on the Henry Hill role of Seal, who narrates his own story in motel rooms night after night in 1986, looking back at events. It’s unclear what he plans to do with the tapes—use them as evidence, or as leverage if someone comes after him? In any case, the tone he adopts in these narrative recordings is light, amoral and even boastful, despite the questionable legality—and morality—of the events he’s recapping. It’s this tone more than anything else that calls Scorsese to mind. Liman and Cruise worked together previously in the hit sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow, but Cruise’s character in this one is far more like his Maverick way back in Top Gun—cocky, swaggering, irreverent—but far more sleazy and, ultimately, far less honorable.
The film opens in 1978, when Barry Seal is a young T.W.A. pilot who amuses himself on long overseas flights by turning off his autopilot and putting the plane into a lurch until the oxygen masks fall, just to scare the passengers before he comes on the PA system and apologizes for that “little bit of turbulence.” We see that Barry is a something of a loose cannon and bored enough with the mundane day-to-day aspects of his job to do something a bit dangerous for an adrenaline rush. So we are not surprised when, approached by a CIA operative named “Schafer” (the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson of mother!, Harry Potter, Star Wars), who wants him to photograph guerilla camps in Central America in a twin-prop Aerostar 600, Barry says yes.
Of course, he can’t tell his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, best known for TV work in series like Parks and Recreation and Marry Me) that he’s quit his TWA job. And unfortunately, though he risks life and limb to bring back great pictures of communist guerilla camps in Guatemala and El Salvador, and he makes secret deliveries and pickups in Panama for the CIA with a guy named Norriega, he does not seem to be bringing home enough money to support Lucy and his growing family. So when he is approached by three Columbian businessmen with a proposition involving his carrying a few packages back to the United States for them—since he has to fly back and forth anyway—he says yes again.
Thus Barry becomes a drug runner for the Medellin cartel, working for Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia). And he makes a lot of money doing it. At one point, forewarned that his Baton Rouge home is going to be raided at 6 a.m., he convinces his family they must move immediately, and they throw everything into a few bags and take off. “Do you trust me?” he asks his frustrated wife. “No.” she tells him. Turns out the CIA has relocated them to—wait for it—Mena, Arkansas, where Barry now owns his very own airport and a few thousand acres around it. From here he builds an empire: The CIA now wants him to fly guns to the Contras, whom they are funding and supplying—illegally, of course—believing that this rag-tag group of would-be soldiers can overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Contras are more interested in stealing his sunglasses and girlie magazines than they are in the guns he’s delivering, but it turns out Escobar and his group are very happy to take some of these guns off Barry’s hands.
And now things get really crazy, since of course, at the same time he’s still running drugs. And he is ferrying Contra recruits to his land in Arkansas where the CIA wants to train them. Of course, half of them run off, glad to be let loose in America. And Barry has to hire several pilots to help him with all this business. Of course, it’s a cash business, so he has suitcases full of cash stashed everywhere he can find a spot, and he opens several new businesses in Mena as fronts to launder his money, and he has millions stashed in every bank in town. Things begin to unwind for Barry, especially after (as a favor to his wife) he hires his hapless brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones from this year’s hit Get Out), a luckless loser whose character arc proves to be no surprise. While the D.E.A., the F.B.I., the A.F.T., the state police, and the Attorney General of Arkansas are all on Barry’s tail, in step Colonel Oliver North and President Ronald Reagan with a new plan to sink the Sandinistas.
Jones is just weird enough to make his part memorable. Wright is a good foil to Cruise, but one wonders why she stays with him. I guess it must be the suitcases full of money. Gleeson is slippery, amoral and incompetent enough to make you believe he really is CIA, especially when he finally comes up with this great idea about using Iran to funnel arms money to the Contras. But of course it’s Cruise who must carry the movie. Cruise is always better when he is not playing the earnest good-guy saving his family or his country or the world, but the hustler, the shyster, the guy with a felonious streak under that charming smile. So it’s Vincent from Collateral, it’s Frank T.J. Mackey from Magnolia, it’s Charlie Babbit from Rainman that stand out in his film repertoire. Here, he not only has that nefarious undercurrent, he’s also just not very bright. He just thinks the entire project is a lark, and has a blast flying into danger and making tons of money. He never has a single qualm nor does he ever take one second to ponder the right or wrong of what he’s doing. Besides, he has “Schafer” there to tell him that as long as what he’s doing is for “the good guys,” it can’t be illegal, right?
In a sense, Cruise is even a parody of himself, or at least his film persona. Yes, he’s a crack pilot who thinks he can get by on his charm and winning smile. But unlike Top Gun’s Maverick, he can’t—the mob wants him dead, his wife doesn’t trust him and at one point he even gets some teeth knocked out of that famous smile. The charm only goes so far. At another point he has a Jack Reacher moment when, as he predicts, he is plucked out of a situation where the law is about to nail him—but the reprieve comes from a source he never expected.
There is something disturbing about Barry’s cavalier attitude about his drug-smuggling, gun-running, shoot-from-the-hip derring-do. Mainly it’s the audience reaction: We are manipulated into rooting for this guy, or at least the intent of the film seems to be that we be so manipulated, and certainly the audience when I saw the film was moved to laughter at the comic tone surrounding the dangerous situations Barry ends up in. But this seems to be Liman’s intent: In a kind of homage to Scorsese, who has us rooting for Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill until we find ourselves culpable in winking at his atrocities and are horrified that he might be living next door in witness protection, Liman has us hoping somehow that Barry will get out of this mess. But it seems that Liman’s chief aim all along has been to expose the mess. In this regard, it is worth noting that it is probably no coincidence that Liman’s father, Arthur L. Liman, a prominent attorney famous for his report on the Attica prison massacre, was also the chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. Perhaps the constitutional violations of that debacle have gnawed at Liman all these years, and he’s taken this opportunity to expose the absurdity and chicanery of that enterprise. But I’m not sure that’s what audiences are getting out of the picture. I got more of a feeling that the impression was “Ah, good old Ronnie. Those were the days when geopolitics was fun!”
The film is well done, though I’m not sure it hits the public where it’s aiming. I’ll give it three Tennysons.
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