A few decades after Top Gun, career history repeats itself for Tom Cruise with his role as an ace flyboy in
American Made. This jaunty, timely but somewhat derivative true-crime comedy-thriller casts the star as a fictionalised version of pilot Barry Seal, a real guy who ran drugs, money and guns between Latin America and the US in the 1980s with backing from the CIA.
Director Doug Liman, teaming up again with Cruise in the wake of Edge of Tomorrow, applies plenty of stylistic top-spin to the screenplay by Gary Spinelli (Stash House), compelling Cruise to raise his game and give his amoral deliveryman a sleazier edge than viewers expect from the usually clean-cut icon.
That said, this is yet another hyper-competent, boyishly devil-may-care character that offers the actor, famous for his derring-do on set, a chance to do his own stunts and fly a plane – it’s not a role all that far out of the ageing megastar’s wheelhouse.
Like Foxcatcher or American Hustle, the film’s core conceit hits that sweet spot for fact-based, journalism-inspired storytelling by being about flamboyant figures who were part of an even bigger, crazier story. (In this case, it’s the Iran-Contra scandal. Arthur Liman, the director’s father, was the chief counsel for the senate investigation in the affair and, according to the film’s press notes, questioned Col Oliver North during the public hearings.)
Tom Cruise and Sarah Wright in Made in America. Picture: Supplied
Kudos are due to Liman and Spinelli for honing the script into a manageable two-hour romp around the Byzantine conspiracy-caper seen through the eyes of Seal.
Wisely, they’ve opted not to get too clever with the chronology, and tell the story straight through, with only the occasional narrator’s interjection via a videotaped “confession” or home-movie memory from Seal.
With voiced-over guidance that recalls Ray Liotta’s interjections in GoodFellas, Seal explains how he got into this crazy mess. Back in the ’70s, Seal was a pilot for TWA with a little smuggling business on the side, bringing Cuban cigars into the US from Canada and Mexico. It’s this little criminal chink in his armour of toothy all-American geniality that allows CIA operative Monty Schafer (Gleeson, deliciously Mephistophelian) to get a hold of Seal and turn him into an asset for the agency. Schafer sets him up with his own twin-propeller plane and a fake business and soon he’s flying down to Panama to exchange cash for intelligence reports from a certain Col Noriega.
Wryly suggesting that Seal may be an ace pilot but is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, it transpires that his activities are hardly much of a secret in Central America and that the growing Medellin Cartel know all about his aerial adventures.
Smooth kingpin Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and his more volatile associate Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) make Seal an offer he can’t refuse: collect bales of cocaine from them in exchange for $2K for every kilo he lands on US soil.
As the ’80s draw near, trouser legs narrow, hairstyles get bigger and archive footage of Jimmy Carter bemoaning America’s spiritual crisis gives way to Reagan warning against evil empires.
Seal’s fortunes rise and fall and rise again, ascending to their greatest heights when Schafer saves him from arrest by the DEA and then sets him up in a new establishment in the tiny burgh of Mena, Arkansas.
Seal’s wife Lucy (Wright, quite good at the strong-jawed sassy schtick) is not pleased to be transplanting in the middle of the night with two small children and another on the way. However, the move does come with 2 000 acres of land, an airport and eventually enough unlaundered cash to fill a luggage store’s worth of Samsonite suitcases and 40kg in gold jewelry.
However, Schafer has a master plan, and adds new stopovers on to Seal’s flight plans with deliveries of guns to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua, whom Reagan is supporting in a guerrilla war against the Sandanista government. Before long, it’s all spiralling out of control.
There’s no denying Liman’s brio as he and his collaborators shuffle the shots and cycle through ever more absurd displays of conspicuous consumption and signifiers of ’80s folly.
But as much fun as all this laughing at the past is, it starts to feel a bit superficial as Seal gets into scrape after scrape but always escapes with a quick line of patter and a smile. As a character, he lacks depth. You get the feeling that you’re just supposed to love the guy because he’s played by Tom Cruise.
There’s a sense that perhaps Liman and Spinelli had plans to make something that focused more on the politics of the time. But the confines of a feature film just aren’t roomy enough to do the subject justice without regressing into the kind of star vehicle the industry has come to expect.