Remember those manic moments during the final act of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas? It was where the world around Henry Hill spiraled recklessly out of control, and then kept spiraling. The real-life mobster took on so much, was juggling so many deals, that the ever-increasing whirlwind around him finally lifted him off the ground and practically flung him to the doorstep of the FBI.
Now meet Barry Seal, once a real-life American airline pilot of the seventies, and think of that same manic whirl, but this time with a major difference. For Henry Hill, that frenzied, chaotic madness came in the final days of a life-long career as a New York criminal. For Barry Seal, it was like that from day one.
In director Doug Liman’s new comically toned biographical crime film, American Made with Tom Cruise, there’s a very real sense of the seventies that begins the moment the Universal logo appears. No sooner has the present day design of those enormous letters started to circle the earth when the film puts on the breaks and cuts. It’s as if a pirate broadcaster had hacked the presentation and flashed the older, seventies throwback Universal logo on the screen. With a sudden burst of disco under the credits from Saturday Night Fever, we’re off on a nostalgic ride that starts some forty years ago and keeps going until 1986. That’s when the unbelievably profitable, madcap world for the madman pilot ground to an all-too abrupt halt.
Known as the crazy gringo who always delivers, Seal (Cruise) began as a bored TWA pilot. Just for his amusement, he would switch the commercial flight’s Auto Pilot off, grab the controls, and create his own rocky, airborne turbulence, just to scare the passengers and to wake a complacent co-pilot out of a deep sleep. Plus, he smuggled illegal cigars into the country to make a little extra on the side.
When a mysterious guy called Schafer (Domhall Gleeson) approaches Seal and invites him to do some reconnaissance work taking pictures over South America for the CIA, Seals takes the job. “Is this legal?” asks Seal. “If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer responds.
But while satisfying the fun of danger when flying so low that his reconnaissance pics are practically head and shoulder shots of secret guerrilla armies, it doesn’t pay. Unlike TWA, there’s no health insurance for his family, no savings account. So when the opportunity of smuggling drugs for the ruthless Medellin Cartel out of South America on his return flights back into the Unites States is presented, Seal takes it. There’s big money to be made in smuggling cocaine. In fact, there’s so much, Seal will later run out of room and have trouble hiding the bags of cash, resulting in stuffing them in cupboards. And when there are no more cupboards, he buries them in his yard.
Things go from crazy to frenetic when Seal is asked by the CIA to run Soviet made, Israeli seized AK 47’s to the Contras, weapons secretly sold to America. He even flies several of the Contras back into America for secret weaponry training in Arkansas, but that doesn’t go according to plan. Once on United States soil, half of those South Americans would bolt and disappear into the country. “They would run away faster than we could ship them in,” Seal would declare.
And so it goes. Seal keeps negotiating new deals, taking on more jobs, and even makes a trade with the White House to gather evidence that the Sandinistas are trafficking drugs. But like Henry Hill’s world when the speed would eventually go no faster, Seal’s high-flying airborne antics take a nose-dive. As he confesses in a video report dated December ‘85, “I should have asked more questions.”
Like the recent Battle of the Sexes, American Made doesn’t simply take place in the late seventies, it looks as though it was actually filmed back then. But unlike that re-enactment of a world famous tennis match, the appearance of cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s work for American Made is more than just a filmic, grainy look. As if complimenting the film’s fragmented, hastily-put-together rhythm, there are scenes that look as though they were lost in canisters, then found, overly exposed or degraded, and inserted into the movie. Even the stylized closing credits have the appearance of a cassette tape played in a VCR where the lettering looks electric and the colors bleed. But it’s all effects. Where Battle of the Sexes was shot on 35mm film, American Made is director Liman’s first film to be shot digitally. Curiously, in Europe, the film has a widescreen, letterbox ratio of 2:35. In America, the sides are cropped for 1:85.
But there’s something important to keep in mind. While the film revolves around TWA pilot Barry Seal, it’s really Tom Cruise you’re watching. Cruise and director Limon worked together on the underrated sci-fi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow, where Aliens met Groundhog Day. The title American Made may be a cynical label for what occurs in the film, but it could easily apply to its star, for that is what the film is really about – a vehicle for a cinematically good looking, all-American movie star.
As the not particularly likable Seal, Cruise posses that handsome, boyish look with the dazzling smile that elevated him to A-level marquee status long before some whacky, real-life business caught up with him, not to mention (though we must) The Mummy. And while everyone around him looks as though they’re of the time, Cruise walks as if in a hermetically sealed bubble, one that keeps his appearance timeless, unaffected by seventies haircuts, fashions, and an overall coloring of decades past. He exists in Cruise time. He could have just walked off the set of Risky Business and on to American Made, and you wouldn’t see the join.
If you do your own research and look things up, the events of American Made really did happen, even if they didn’t quite happen in the way depicted in the film. Barry Seal’s real-life adventures were so outrageous, and his reckless manner, so out there, that to tell the tale as it really occurred would make for one unbelievable story. But when told in this light, breezy, and overall comical manner with a movie star at its center, strangely, things are easier to accept.
Though, as with many films of late, the movie feels ultimately too long, and it’s style catches up with it. When Seal enters into dealings with the White House, and well known, real-life types like Oliver North (Robert Farrior), his secretary, Fawn Hill (Mickey Sumner), and Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino) walk on, the film takes the appearance of an extended SNL political character skit that won’t end. And if you’re the kind that considers everyone in politics, particularly those in the White House, as crooks and deserve to be behind bars, American Made will only confirm what you’ve always believed. Really. They should all be in handcuffs.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 115 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)