AMERICAN MADE a zippy 2017 crime-adventure-comedy-biopic, is— to quote its director Doug Liman— “a fun lie based on a true story.” Just as countless movies have shown that you don’t let messy facts gum up a good idea, this history-lark flew under the radar when people not disposed to like its star skipped it, missing not only one of his best performances, but a sleek and entertaining actioner that actually had the cheek to point a blame finger at some of the right criminals.
Bored with his passenger-shuffle duty as a pilot for TWA, genial hustler Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) turns his aeronautic skill and devil-may-care bravado to work as a smuggler, spending a good chunk of the Reagan 80’s working in various capacities for the CIA, the DEA and, at the same time, Colombia’s Medellin Cartel under Pablo Escobar. The bucks flowed (Seal made over $60,000,000 importing billions of dollars worth of cocaine), the nets tightened (avoiding prosecution, running guns for Reagan’s Contra killers, engaging with stalwart upstanding types like Manuel Noriega and Oliver North), until he was eventually arm-twisted into informing on Pablo (see: head of list of things to avoid). The perks were awesome, but the payoff was…well, a clever fast-paced fib of an action flick, a quarter-century after the white lines blew away.
The script by Gary Spinelli does some expected chronology juggling and character-condensing. The ‘real Seal’ was tall and weighed in at 280 (the Cartel comedians called him ‘El Gordo’–The Fat Man) so that’s obviously not Tom; Seal’s three wives are merged into one ‘Lucy’, played with sprightly sexy kick by Sarah Wright; the government operative played by Domhnall Gleeson is fictional, as is the weasel brother-in-law, perfectly captured by Caleb Landry Jones. But the details are a trifle in this tongue-in-cheek telling: it’s not a sober documentary, but a black comic dip into a crazy piece of recent history populated by some colorful miscreants. Though affable to a fault, Seal was doing dark deeds for nasty types, many of them sporting $1000 suits and highest level clearance. “Just say ‘No.'” (thanks, Nancy, back to your astrology)
Resisting any urge to flip this into a Tom-dominated knockoff, Cruise delivers one of his best-modulated performances, energetic, likeable and sympathetic, yet despite good reviews it was one of the star’s least successful moneymakers, the worldwide gross of $134,900,000 trailing at 58th place, behind all the effects-driven popcorners. Still, enough green came in to cancel out the more than $50,000,000 it cost to produce. Likely, the so-so response came from audience over-exposure to drug-war epics, and the availability of similar-themed material on the small screen (Narcos, etc.) But in factoring the relative under-performance, you can’t overlook the dog-with-bone refusal of Tom Cruise dissers to give the guy his due, let alone a break. He works like a demon, he’s good at what he does, and, own up, You Have No Idea what the guy is really like, so can it, already.
The direction is snappy, the flying scenes are exciting, the script is funny, the locations are attractive and the well-honed 115 minutes are just enough to tell the tale, with a cast including Jesse Plemons, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Lola Kirke, Fredy Yate and Benito Martinez.