Tom Cruise plays something of a patsy in American Made, but he’s a patsy who knows the risks and still wants in. The movie is based on the life of Barry Seal, a commercial pilot who was recruited to do reconnaissance for the CIA in the late 1970s and would later become eagerly embroiled in the Colombian drug trade, the Nicaraguan revolution, and Noriega’s Panama. As portrayed by Cruise, Barry is a guy who just can’t say no to deals that are too good to be true, especially when they involve quick cash and a sense of adventure.
The movie’s strength is an agreeably relaxed performance from Cruise, whose characters are usually wound so tight that they sleep at Defcon 2. Barry is something different; he lets things come to him, and never gets too ruffled when they start heading south. Even after spending time in a Colombian jail—and emerging with cuts and a missing tooth—Barry still signs up for what he considers to be another high-flying lark. He’s not naive, just overly confident that if he flies fast enough and smart enough things will work out in the end.
American Made, then, can be filed in the category of Tom Cruise performances that function as self-critique. Barry has the skills and the smile to convince us he’s a winner, and always will be, but in the movie’s corners (where United States bureaucrats, Central American dictators, and Medellin drug dealers are pulling the strings), we can see a bad end closing in.
The movie’s strength is an agreeably relaxed performance from Cruise.
Interestingly, director Doug Liman made a previous Tom Cruise picture that functions as self-critique: Edge of Tomorrow. That science-fiction flick, in which he played a weaselly military publicist trying to avoid active duty, backed off the Cruise deconstruction at the end, but American Made has more distance from its hero—even as Liman’s technique cleverly puts us in Barry’s headspace. Interspersed throughout are snippets of VHS tapes, in which Barry entertainingly narrates his wild tale into the camera. In the story proper, the camera is often right next to Cruise in extreme close-up. The gorgeous aerial footage, meanwhile—of Barry’s plane buzzing around amidst the richly saturated hues of various jungles—woos us with an aura of adventure.
That’s not to say American Made is without its own point of view. Although it’s primarily a darkly comic character study (aided by a playfully anarchic supporting performance from Domhnall Gleeson as Barry’s CIA contact), the movie is peppered with bits of political satire, especially in the use of footage from Ronald Reagan movies once the narrative moves into the 1980s. And in its surprisingly harsh ending, the film breaks its aesthetic connection with Barry completely with a visual flourish involving those VHS tapes. American Made ultimately ends as a tragedy, then, the tale of a fun guy who flew high for a while, only to be suddenly erased.