Review: American Made is a Fast Paced Joy Ride Into American Espionage

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Tom Cruise Breaks Bad

American politics have been shadowy, underground, covert, and illicit for at least the last 50 years, in the wake of the highly divisive (and unsuccessful) Vietnam War. After the United States’ attempt to stall communism in SE Asia, many Americans wanted to return to America’s non-interventionist past. Politicians would not sanction further involvement in other country’s affairs, causing the powers-that-be to turn to other methods to get things done. Unsurprisingly, many of these actions are not common knowledge, being hard to track and trace and often being relegated to the realm of conspiracy theory.

American Made, directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Swingers) starring Tom Cruise and Sarah Wright, digs into American shadow politics, through a unique lens – following the exploits of hotshot pilot Barry Seal (Cruise), who would work for the C.I.A., FBI, D.E.A., and the Medellin Cartel in one of the most perplexing, convoluted quintuple-crosses in history.  Bored by the repetition of commercial piloting, Barry Seal feigns turbulence to keep himself interested. Higher-ups take notice of Seal’s hotshot piloting and adrenalized, risk-taking nature, tagging him to fly photographic reconnaissance missions in Central America. Quickly rising through the ranks, Seal’s prowess earns him even more attention, this time from infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and what would become the Medellin Drug Cartel – the most powerful and dangerous drug cartel in history. This begins a high-octane, high-altitude game of political double-crossing, as Seal is indoctrinated into even more agencies, running guns from the C.I.A. to the emerging Nicaraguan Contras as an illicit anti-communist army, unofficially sanctioned by the United States government. By the end of American Made, it’s hard to keep track of who Seal is working for or who’s double-crossing whom. It’s one of the shortcomings of the film but it’s also indicative of just how crazy American (and international) politics were at the time.

Production-wise, the film sticks to the retro ‘70s/’80s-aesthetic worship so popular these past few years, with numerous movies – 20th Century Women, Inherent Vice – and TV series – The Deuce, I’m Dying Up Here etc. – calling on archival footage and mixed formats and mediums to give an authentic ‘70s/’80s fug to the entire proceedings. It’s one of the film’s greatest charms and selling points, helping to negate a couple of SNAFUs that could have otherwise sunk it like the Bismarck. The other major selling point is simply Tom Cruise himself. Yes, he has played the charismatic, stylish, brightly-smiling Maverick in almost too-many-movies to mention, but after this summer’s jilted The Mummy, with Cruise essentially acting as a simulacrum of himself for some gods-eye-view shooter game, it’s refreshing to see some actual personality from the veteran actor.  

American Made is a fast, high-octane film,  mirroring the breakneck triple-G aviation action. So fast and so furious is the adrenaline that there’s very little room made for the humanity in the midst of the geopolitics. The best example would be Sarah Wright’s portrayal of Lucy Seal. While there are a few appropriate meltdowns, as Lucy Seal is inadvertently dragged into this world of gun and drug smuggling, but we never really get a sense of who she is, as a person. Her few moments to shine and explode are some of the film’s most successful moments, suggesting a missed opportunity from the often-hilarious actress. American Made skims over the personalities making up the history of an American Airlines’ pilot dodging rough air, dipping in cursorily but not enough for the audience to connect. This is most evident when Barry Seal meets Pablo Escobar, one of the founding members of the Medellin Cartel. There’s a brief introduction, letting the name hang in the air for 3 beats like a portentous hammer of doom. Those not already well-versed in ‘80s American covert history might not know who that is, or why the meeting is significant. You’ll have to do some digging, yourself, to decide if you care or not – not the finest hallmark of top-shelf cinema.

I remember reading the cartoon strip Bloom County, by Berkeley Breathed, as a teenager in the ‘90s. I thought Opus and Bill The Cat were funny, but was totally mystified to all of the references to Oliver North; the Iran-Contra affair; Jeane Kilpatrick. I still know little about American international politics during the 1980s, and I lived through those times. Bloom County helped inspire me to dig in and learn more, however, giving a wider view of the world and a clearer (if more grim and dark) understanding of my country. American Made could perform a similar feat, inspiring audiences to think critically and question everything, particularly from the government – both of which are vitally important in today’s world.

American Made may be a slick, glossy film, but it is entertaining, watchable, and helps to illustrate some hard-to-follow moments of Machiavellian politics. With so many people being in denial about covert American politics and meddling in other countries and cultures, it’s refreshing to see big budget movies tackling the topic, unearthing secrets and revealing injustices.

J Simpson
J Simpson is a journalist /academic writer and critic. He is obsessed with genre fiction, particularly horror and SF, believing they are windows into our dreams. He is the author and creator of Forestpunk, an online journal exploring the threads of horror, witchcraft, and the occult throughout culture.

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