Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise
The story told by American Made is the type for which the phrase "only in America" was invented, a tale of daring and ambition and corruption fueled by the enterprising nature of the "American Dream," a story about flying too close to the sun and then bursting into flames. I don't know how much of it is actually true, but it certainly seems like the kind of story where the truth is even crazier than what ends up on screen because there are limits to how much you can expect the audience to believe. Directed by Doug Liman, American Made a greatly entertaining movie that makes the most of Tom Cruise's movie star charms as well as the audience's fondness for protagonists that do the wrong things while winking conspiratorially and making it look like a damn lot of fun - at least until a cartel gets pissed off, then the fun stops pretty quick.
Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot with a sideline in smuggling Cuban cigars through Canadian hubs who finds himself recruited in the late 1970s by CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to undertake reconnaissance missions for the agency in Central America. Under the guise of having opened his own aviation consulting business - under a name which his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), tells him sounds made up and which abbreviates to (wait for it) I.C.A. - Barry starts out taking photos for the government and then is promoted to acting as a courier between the CIA and Manuel Noriega, exchanging bundles of cash for folders of information. It's during one of his sojourns to Panama that he finds himself "invited" into a car and is taken to meet the men who run what will one day be known as the Medellin Cartel, making a side deal with them to start smuggling cocaine into the States. The deal allows Barry to get himself out of the financial bind he ends up in after impulsively leaving TWA, abandoning his pension and his medical benefits just as Lucy becomes pregnant with their third child (when he tells Schafer that he needs more money, Schafer shrugs and tells him that he's sure he'll manage), but it also results in Barry getting arrested. In order to get out of jail and back to the States, Barry has to accept a new deal from Schafer and, to paraphrase his own words, this is where it gets a bit crazy.
By the time the movie is over, Barry has been working for just about everyone thanks to a complex web of US government interests. He works for the CIA transporting arms to the Contras, whom the US wants to rise up to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist government, and the CIA turns a blind eye to the drug smuggling and assists him in evading other agencies who would not be so kind. For all that effort, however, it turns out that the Contras aren't really interested in going to war (later the CIA has Barry start bringing Contras to the US to be trained and many arrive only to seize their chance and run off) and so they make their own deal with the Medellin Cartel: the Contras want drugs, the cartel wants guns, so the Contras trade their arms from the US to the cartel for drugs. Meanwhile Barry is making more money than he knows what to do with (the Seal house is quite literally overflowing with cash, with Barry opening a closet door at one point and getting knocked over by an avalanche of bags full of cash) thanks to being the go-to guy for everyone and ends up on the radar of pretty much every law enforcement agency in the land. As things start to spin out of control, it starts to look like Barry's worked his way so deep that he'll never get out - fortunately for him, there's always some branch of the government that could use his particular skills and is willing to make a deal.
Working from a screenplay by Gary Spinelli, American Made rides high on the impish, can-you-even-believe-this? posture that it's able to strike as it follows Barry on adventures that often find him falling ass backwards into and then back out of trouble. It's not often that Cruise plays a character who could be described as a "doofus," but there's really no other word that comes to mind during a sequence in which Barry, trying to evade the DEA, crash lands his plane in a neighborhood, emerges from the wreck covered in cocaine, and then continues his escape on a kid's bike while carrying a duffel bag full of drugs. American Made is a surprisingly funny movie (Cruise himself has rarely been funnier than he is here) that opts to put a comedic spin on scenes wherever possible, including a scene where Barry is finally busted by four different agencies simultaneously, each one surprised that the others are there and all of them fighting with each other over who has jurisdiction, the scene quickly descending into farce. This strategy works in terms of the film's conception of Barry as a guy who finds a way to roll with the punches and keep having a good time, though the film's comedic bent is ultimately somewhat at odds with Barry's fate, making for a weird tonal shift at the end, in addition to being totally at odds with the real-life fallout of the things that Barry has a hand in doing.
Still, American Made is a fun movie to watch while you're watching it, even as it reminds you of the US' destructive colonialism-under-the-guise-of-fighting-Communism policies and the fact that those policies were not limited to one specific party (Reagan is the President during most of Barry's exploits - and Barry loves Reagan - but Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the latter in a blink and you'll miss it appearance, also factor into the story). It features Cruise at his lightest and most likable and Liman guides the proceedings with a deft hand, allowing it to feel like a freewheeling adventure even though, on closer inspection, it's a story told with a pretty classical story structure. You may find yourself disbelieving a lot of it, but in all likelihood you'll be entertained by the telling anyway.