‘American Made’ reproduces a truly wild story
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Alejandro Edda, and Caleb Landry Jones
“American Made” – Thirty-one years ago, Tom Cruise “owned” the skies and movie theatres everywhere by playing a hotshot U.S. Navy pilot in “Top Gun” (1986). This flashy, testosterone-filled box office juggernaut cemented Cruise’s big screen appeal after his breakout role in “Risky Business” (1983), just three years prior. In 2017, Cruise plays a pilot again, another daredevil who takes massive risks, but sports a very, very different career in the wild, true story of Barry Seal, who made an American fortune in “American Made”.
Barry’s tale of fortune begins during the country’s economically stressful days of the late-70s and early-80s and through more lucrative times in the mid-80s. Although, Barry didn’t make money by investing in savings bonds or the stock market. On the contrary, in 1978, this former-TWA pilot ran reconnaissance missions over Central America and took pictures of small military operations via a camera on the bottom of a trusty and nimble Cessna for the CIA. Soon after, his CIA contact, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), instructs Barry to carry rifles and ammunition on his plane for preferred groups of rebels. Taking lots of risks for little rewards and with a family to support at home, Barry looks for a pay raise. One finds him, in the form of an infamous group of drug dealers (who I will not name in this review).
Director Doug Liman dives deeply into Barry’s daring and rowdy career choices and captures the same tones and pacing in his film. Moving at a breakneck speed, Barry narrates his story like a used car salesman, with a loosened necktie and a newly-poured fourth cup of coffee, reminiscing about his biggest deals and trades with an old friend. Liman, meanwhile, whips his camera through the air and land as Barry and his Cessna dive into militant camps under lethal pops of gunfire and crash through treetops while trying to take off on an undersized runway consisting of crabgrass and dirt.
Cruise seems to be really having fun here, while also somewhat playing against type. His trademark smile and daredevil persona certainly blanket the big screen, but Barry’s ethical compass pulls due south when routinely packing cocaine and guns on his plane for a hard-earned buck. Barry hobnobs with wealthy drug dealers, outsmarts the DEA and hires a crew of pilots to exponentially increase his operation, so this is not the life that he intended during his time as a commercial airline pilot, but it becomes one that he justifies.
As director Patty Jenkins (“Monster” (2003)) says, “Every villain has their belief system that makes perfect sense to them.”
Sure, Barry is not a villain, but he is bathing in illegal activity, and he knows it from the get-go. The person who does not know Barry’s illicit dealings is his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), but she buys in once he comes clean….not to the law but to her, of course. Lucy’s physical presence adds to the tomfoolery of the picture’s amusing, whimsical atmosphere. Lucy is a stunning, 5’9” blonde-haired beauty who should be modeling swimsuits on a Southern France beach. Here, Wright portrays a mom with three young kids in tiny Mena, Arkansas, in a moment of playful, unapologetic casting that rivals Denise Richards piloting a military spaceship in “Starship Troopers” (1997).
“Starship Troopers” casting agents also had fun by pinning Casper Van Dien in the lead role as well, but I digress, and yes, Wright does holds her own and compliments Cruise nicely, as Barry’s ever-supportive better half. Caleb Landry Jones (“Get Out” (2017), “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017)) also drops in and stands out in a memorable supporting role as Lucy’s troublemaking, younger brother.
With a solid supporting cast and Barry soaring in and out of North, Central and South America, Liman orchestrates this three-ring circus that is full of surprises. Well, when looking back at Cruise’s aforementioned 1986 film, “Top Gun” may be flashier, but “American Made” is - dare I say - more enjoyable, and that may be the biggest surprise.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.