Meet Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a TWA pilot and family man who became a drug smuggler for the Medellín cartel, led by Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía). The Louisiana-born Seal ran narcotics, guns and money between Central America and an airport in Mena, Arkansas in the late Seventies and early Eighties – then the CIA recruited him as an informant so he could keep doing it and bring them back key intel in the War on Drugs. It’s lucrative work if playing both sides against the middle doesn’t get you killed.
It’s all true – but so what? American Made may be fact-based but that doesn’t stop it from feeling monumentally generic, like you’ve seen it all before (Blow, Sicario, The Infiltrator, War Dogs, TV’s Narcos … the list goes on). The big difference here is that Cruise is spreading his starshine over this one and that (still) counts for something. (Unless, of course, your movie is named The Mummy.) Thanks to director Doug Liman, who power-teamed with Cruise on 2014’s underrated Edge of Tomorrow, this stranger-than-fiction drama whooshes by – just not so fast that a stultifying sense of sameness doesn’t stall it.
As ever, Cruise gives it all he’s got: those teeth, that smile, the sense that it’s all in fun. And it is, for a while, as Uruguayan cinematographer César Chalone (City of God) lays on vibrant images to a golden oldies soundtrack (think “A Fifth of Beethoven” and “Hooked on Classics”). Liman gets high on his own comic fumes as Seal’s twin-prop plane – loaded down with illegal cargo – struggles to land on a postage-stamp runway in Columbia.
The film’s moral weight is another matter. Screenwriter Gary Spinelli has to huff and puff just to stay skin deep. American Made uses a framing device, a taped confession by Seal that explains – GoodFellas-style – how the whole mess started. There he was, making a nice, illegal living smuggling contraband. Enter CIA operative Monty Schafer (the excellent Domhnall Gleeson) with a devil’s deal to set Barry up with the cover of a legit business at the airport in Mena (the film’s original title) in exchange for a little spying on Noriega in Panama. And while he’s at it, how about a stop in Nicaragua to deliver guns to Contra rebels who have Reagan support in a guerrilla war against the Sandanistas.
Before you say Iran/Contra, let it be known that Arthur L. Liman, the director’s father, was the chief counsel for the Senate investigation into that scandal. Seal is ass-deep in the muck, even on the domestic front. His wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, struggling valiantly with a thankless role) doesn’t like her kids being dragged into this quicksand. The script tosses a lot of balls in the air and the filmmaker – with expert help from editor Andrew Mondshein – keeps them spinning. But when the film needs to go dark, it’s all too clear that no one laid a foundation to support consequence, much less tragedy.