American Made doesn’t entirely stand on its own as a movie, but it provides some kick for two reasons. One is the project’s based-on-fact nature: Its cavalcade of unlikely encounters and officially sanctioned malfeasance—peopled by a cast of historical figures that includes future jailbirds Oliver North and Manuel Noriega and future president George W. Bush—is truly incredible. This is the story of Barry Seal, a former TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot who flew drug shipments for the Medellín cartel and managed to get involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (and, the movie strongly suggests, was working at the behest of the CIA, too).
The other reason American Made is frequently lively is the presence of the actor who plays Seal, one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. It may have snuck up on us, but Tom Cruise has now been a major movie star for almost 35 years (Risky Business came out in ’83), a longer run at the top than many legendary stars. Cruise is good in American Made, throwing himself into the film’s gonzo narrative with his usual gung-ho energy. This is a black comedy, and irony isn’t Cruise’s most natural mode, yet by playing Seal as a slightly dimwitted cheeseball on the make, he gets into the movie’s you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff spirit.
But the interesting thing about Cruise’s turn here is the way the actor does a little rebranding of his most instantly identifiable role. Cruise’s career was set after he played the cocky flyboy Maverick in Top Gun in 1986, and that movie’s unbridled American swagger put the final nail in the coffin of the era when the box office could be afflicted by skeptical, critical movies. American Made, which coincidentally ends in 1986, is another film about a pilot—a maverick, in fact—but this time the cockiness is shown to be a cover for bravado that actually gets people killed; Cruise takes his gigantic, gleaming smile and makes it a beacon for reckless foolishness. Seal is the kind of guy who goes to Tom Cruise movies and comes out way stoked.
American Made begins with Seal as a commercial pilot, running Cuban cigars on the sly (the real Seal was a bit naughtier—the movie rearranges various facts while keeping the general history straight). He’s noticed by a CIA operative (Domhnall Gleeson) and recruited for off-the-grid smuggling journeys to Central and South America. Eventually, and sometimes uproariously, this escalates into an extremely dangerous business, as Seal gets addicted to the thrill of the game and the allure of unimaginable amounts of cash. The CIA arranges for Seal to essentially take over an Arkansas town because it has a suitable airstrip for his growing fleet of small planes, and he becomes king of this razorback backwater, much to the amazement of his wife (Sarah Wright). Dozens of characters pass through (including Pablo Escobar—Seal’s story was a plotline on the TV show Narcos), and Seal survives long enough to get dragged into the Reagan administration’s attempt to prop up the Nicaraguan contras and demonize the Sandinistas.
Director Doug Liman, who worked with Cruise on the ingenious Edge of Tomorrow, tries to maintain a frenzied energy, a kind of GoodFellas of the skies. It’s effective enough, if not always coherent. Less convincing is Liman’s visual gimmick of making the movie resemble an inelegant straight-to-video artifact of the VHS era; there’s a yellowish cast to everything, the sickly glow of faded videotape. That’s clever for a few minutes but wearying after two hours.
Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli repeatedly emphasize the political backdrop of Seal’s wild career, but they didn’t need to work so hard at that. Politics is everywhere now, and the Top Gun mentality has been ascendant in recent months. (It’s easy to imagine Maverick buzzing Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang palace on a dare.) So this is a curious moment for Cruise to prepare a Top Gun follow-up movie, set for probable 2019 release. What could that possibly be? An America-First fable for our times? Or will Cruise follow the mood of American Made, and have Maverick take a knee on the sidelines? American Made. Rated R. Opens Fri., Sep. 29 at various theaters.