While “Wall Street” gave the image of the 1980s as a suited, slick-haired Michael Douglas in Manhattan, “American Made” gives us the image of a manic Tom Cruise, dusted head to toe in cocaine, carrying a satchel full of cash down a side street after crashing his twin-engine prop plane into a quiet Louisiana subdivision.
Doug Liman’s “American Made” is based on the true story of a former airline pilot who becomes a prolific drug and arms trafficker in the 1980s. Cruise plays Barry Seal, an underachieving TWA pilot who is making a little money on the side smuggling Cuban cigars on his flights. When his actions catch the attention of the CIA in 1978, Seal is offered a job that will take his life on a wildly different course that keeps getting crazier as it goes along.
It’s a little tricky to tell just how much truth or fiction to pull from the “based on a true story” expression that leads the film, but either way, the results are bonkers. Initially, Seal is hired by a covert agent named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to fly surveillance missions over Central America, gathering photos and intelligence for the CIA. But when the CIA income proves insufficient to support Seal’s expanding family, he starts taking on side jobs.
Those side jobs eventually include selling intelligence for Manuel Noriega and smuggling cocaine for Pablo Escobar’s burgeoning drug cartel in Colombia. But rather than shutting down “the gringo who always delivers,” the U.S. Government keeps giving Seal more and more work, using him to ship arms to freedom-fighter Contras in Nicaragua and twisting his extracurriculars to their advantage.
The escalating craziness initially runs Seal’s family out of their humble house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but the government quickly sets them up on a generous patch of land (including a private airport) in a tiny Arkansas town that evolves into a cash-stuffed home base for illegal drug and arms trafficking. Seal and his family have more money than they know what to do with and more business than they can manage, and the operation expands into a fleet of small planes dubbed The Snowbirds.
The whole thing has a distinctive Catch-22 vibe to it, celebrating and mocking the lunacy of government and culture and this gross perversion of the American Dream in a way that is highly entertaining and distinctly sobering. There’s an element of camp nostalgia to see Seal desperately trying to manage his operation with a fistful of quarters on a fleet of pay phones, or to watch his loser brother-in-law JB (Caleb Landry Jones) steal some of Seal’s ill-earned cash and use it to buy, of all things, a pea-green Gremlin.
At the same time, there’s the sense that we are being masked from the true horrors that are happening just off screen, considering Seal’s connection to the blood-soaked cartels. “American Made” is not an especially violent film, but in a way that just makes its brief flashes of violence all the more poignant — a reminder that Seal’s wacky story may not be something to laugh along with dismissively.
Cruise works well at the center of the madness, giving off a kind of phony confidence that masks the fact that he is constantly improvising on the verge of losing everything. Audiences may be amused to see the 55-year-old actor matched with 34-year-old Sarah Wright as his wife Lucy, but “American Made” is the kind of movie that insists reality is much more implausible — and entertaining — than fiction.
“American Made” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity; running time: 115 minutes.