So many filmmakers want to channel their inner-Scorsese at some point in their careers, but in many cases, they tend to miss the point as to what made his films like Goodfellas, Casino, or The Wolf of Wall Street so brilliant (I’m looking at you American Hustle and War Dogs and Gold). With American Made, director, Doug Liman, and writer, Gary Spinelli, apply the same irreverent tone and sweeping storytelling to the bizarre true story of smuggler, Barry Seal, with Tom Cruise in the role.
As a riff on that Goodfellas formula, American Made is rather standard, and doesn’t veer too far from the kind of beats you’d expect. It starts small with Barry being swept up in the CIA taking pictures as he flies over South America, and simply creating the rise and fall snowball effect as he gets more ambitious and makes more morally murky decisions by getting involved with the Medellín Cartel and running guns to the Contras for the American government. Things go crazy, you know the deal.
The reason other (lesser) filmmakers tend to fail when they mimic this style is that they capture all the flair (i.e. the narration, freeze frames, period soundtrack, etc), but miss the larger messaging that underlines the story. Lucky for us, Doug Liman is not one of those filmmakers. American Made is about corruption, the nature of greed – not just of the individual, but of an entire government – which in this case is driven by Reagan and the war on drugs, and how organizations within the government are working often at odds with that goal. Bureaucracy is a mess, and no one really knows what they’re doing, and those who do know what they’re doing have agendas of their own, such as Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA Agent Schafer who is more or less servicing his own ego more than anything else as he brings in Barry and continue expanding operations to supposedly “build nations.” It’s all filtered through the perspective of Barry, who is always open to all the insane opportunities he continues to stumble into, managing to be simultaneously befuddled and seduced by the situations that fall onto his lap.
Despite not bearing much of a resemblance to the real Barry Seal (though, it does seem like he gained a solid ten pounds for the role), Tom Cruise kills it. This is the kind of role that lives and dies by the charisma of its performer, and since Cruise can never not be a total movie star, he is perfectly cast as the kind of guy you’d want to follow through a journey of excess and debauchery. If his string of blockbuster work has been wearing you off (and given The Mummy, that would certainly be understandable), then this is definitely a refreshing change of pace that allows him to play a different and fully fleshed out character and not just Tom Cruise being himself, though there certainly is a little bit of that here because…of course. While he may be the star, the supporting cast is also really solid. Domhnall Gleeson is clearly having a good time being a sort of sleazy ambitious government agent, Sarah Wright brings a lot of personality as Barry’s wife, Lucy, Caleb Landry Jones makes a memorable turn as Lucy’s brother, JB (even if it’s like the millionth time I’ve seen him play the same basic icky, white trash character). If anyone gets the short end of the stick, it’s Jesse Plemons as a small town sheriff, and while he certainly isn’t bad, he doesn’t get much of a chance to really make it his own, unlike every other minor character.
While there’s never really a point where it seems like I’m watching a cover band version of something like Wolf of Wall Street, it’s still a pretty damn good cover. Doug Liman has always pushed himself as a filmmaker, sometimes to iffy results, like with his war thriller, The Wall, just earlier this year, but American Made is a win across the board. He seems aware that we’ve seen stories like this many times, so he keeps it as light as he can and as fast as he can, at least until the moments that show the consequences of this kind of lifestyle, but also never overstaying it’s welcome (clocking in at just under two hours). It’s top notch entertainment that’s funny, thrilling, and fascinating, but very much made with an adult audience in mind, to the point where you can practically feel the cocaine sweat oozing off the screen with its grimy, raw and frantic camera work (with a lot of props going to cinematographer, César Charlone, known mostly for his work on City of God). Tom Cruise shines in the kind of way only Tom Cruise could pull off, and you find yourself almost wanting to join in on the ride with him.