As fun and as sharp as American Made can be, it’s also a bit depressing since you can’t help but feel like this was the opportunity for star Tom Cruise to return to the more nuanced performances he hasn’t shown us in over a decade. Cruise is a good actor, but it seemed like he made a decision in the late 2000s to only play likable characters, thus leaving behind more interesting roles like the ones he played in Magnolia, War of the Worlds, and Eyes Wide Shut. This renders Doug Liman’s movie a bit of an oddity as Cruise grins and stunts his way through a film about a careless individual who only wants to feed his own ego and adrenaline. A more introspective performance could have made this one of the defining performances of Cruise’s career, but he seems fairly oblivious to the subtext of his character, so Liman tries to use this to his advantage, turning the story of smuggler Barry Seal into one of American excess and carelessness on the global stage.
Before he begins a life of espionage and crime, we don’t really learn much about TWA pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) other than his need for an exciting life, which is exactly what CIA agent “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) offers when he gives Barry a plane and tells him to get shots of communist fighters in South America. Barry is only too happy to oblige, but finds that working for the CIA doesn’t pay too well. Fortunately for Barry, the growing Medellin cartel pays incredibly well, and they recruit the pilot to smuggle cocaine back to the U.S. From there, Barry becomes everyone’s smuggler, “the gringo who always delivers”, taking guns to the Contras in Nicaruaga, and taking drugs back into the U.S. Barry starts raking in the cash and stashing money all over the small town of Mena, Arkansas, but it only becomes a matter of time before all of his allies become enemies.
From a visual standpoint, American Made is arguably the most exciting film Liman has ever made. There’s a freewheeling use of the camera that’s not afraid of a zoom, a sun-drenched color palette, or an awkward angle as if the cameraman is just as loose as Barry. It gives American Made a vibrant, unhinged feeling that never feels self-conscious or contrived. The way Liman directs the movie, it’s as if Barry is moving full-speed ahead and we’re just trying to keep up, perfectly framed shots be damned. While previous films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Jumper hinted at something more workmanlike, American Made is positively electric.
The stylized direction also fits nicely with Gary Spinelli’s script, which comes off as a damning indictment of the U.S. couched in a fun story about a guy who went on lots of adventures and got rich doing it. It’s a surprising sneak attack, but it really shows the amorality of a country with far too much power and no idea how to use it. A straight retelling of the Iran-Contra scandal probably would have been incredibly dull, but through Barry, we can see the insanity of the U.S. backing rebels who don’t want to fight and then paying its top smuggler to basically bring drugs back into the country. If the movie wasn’t so damn funny and Cruise wasn’t so charming, American Made would probably leave you sick to your stomach.
But the weird thing about American Made is that it never wants you to feel bad at all. Imagine The Wolf of Wall Street with the edges sanded off and you have something approximating American Made. Jordan Belfort’s actions are just as damaging as Barry Seal’s, but whereas we’re meant to both enjoy and be repulsed by Jordan’s debauchery, Barry offers us all of the party with none of the hangover. Cruise, for whatever reason, doesn’t want us to dislike Barry, so the character becomes flat and lacks an arc. He never questions his actions, never questions U.S. policy, and is only too happy to become ridiculously rich off funding a failed war and a growing drug epidemic. For American Made, it’s the larger situation that’s crazy rather than Barry’s complicity and greed.
For a film that spans almost a decade and covers two major global events (Iran-Contra and Medellin), none of that gets on Barry. He’s a drug smuggler who doesn’t even do drugs, and while much has been made of a scene where Tom Cruise gets covered in cocaine and rides away on a bicycle, it’s a funny scene that lacks weight because Barry doesn’t change or grow. He’s a nice guy who’s also an adrenaline junkie, and he does terrible things, but the movie doesn’t want us to think he’s a terrible person. That makes for an odd mixture, but Liman tries to steer it to his advantage by making Barry a commentary on all of us. If we’re all out having fun, then we don’t need to think about the long-ranging consequences of our actions. Sure, Iran-Contra went horribly wrong, but we can all laugh about it now. What horrifying scandals today will we laugh about in thirty years?
Unfortunately, with Cruise at the center of American Made, the movie can never go quite as far as it needs to. It’s a movie made to thrill rather than unnerve, and that’s because at the end of the day, Cruise is still making movies where he needs to be liked. He can play a goofball or a guy who’s in over his head, but at the end of the day, when he flashes that million-dollar smile, he needs us to like him. For now, that’s all well and good, but I miss the days where I didn’t just like a Tom Cruise performance; I was impressed by it.