FILM REVIEW: Tom Cruise, the Quintessential American Star, Leads the Way in Drug Cartel Tale AMERICAN MADE
The bad habits of the American public, of persistently forgiving mendacity and deceit by its political leaders, is a mainstay of our culture. And the stories that these episodes have spawned are at times so unbelievable as to seem to be straight out of, well, the movies. Just as archetypical of our ethos, though, is that star known as Tom Cruise, who perseveres in remaining a permanent fixture in the constellation of Hollywood royalty no matter what.
In his latest film, American Made, for which he teams up again with Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, two pillars of our American decade the 1980s (Cruise and our unfortunate forays into Latin America), converge to form an entertaining, at times hypnotic, but rather conventional tale of double crossing and betrayal. Cruise plays the real-life Barry Seal, a smooth-talking TWA pilot who is recruited by the CIA (an agent played by Domhall Gleeson) to serve in one of the many deadly games that the spooks are playing with and around Latin American regimes, counter-revolutions, and drug cartels.
You know as you are watching this rendition that there is no way that the real Seal was as slick as Cruise is—either in real life or in his personification of the flyer-turned-smuggler. Cruise and his persona have a life of their own in our movie history, and the movie is arguably just as much about Cruise himself than anything else.
Still, Liman tries with his usual intensity to make the characters and the plot as real as possible, interspersing with the action real life footage of politicians and public figures of yore (think Jimmy Carter, the Reagans) meant to cast a cynical eye against all the many times they have lied to us. Though the action begins in the late 1970s, with seemingly nowhere to go but down for the American economy, most of the story is focused around the birth of the Medellin cartel in Colombia, which the CIA is implied to have helped spawn by turning a blind eye to Seal’s smuggling on their behalf in exchange for his help sending weapons into the banana republics the agency is trying to “regime change.” Seal missed flying into Pinochet’s Chile by just a few years, but his covert operations were no less consequential.
Seal works as his own man, profiting from the burgeoning drug trade with the tacit consent of the CIA, willing to turn a blind eye even to egregious crimes to get its geopolitical way. This story has been told many times before—actors from Johnny Depp to Brian Cranston have forayed into the genre, into which, incredible, Cruise had never really ventured.
American Made wades into some of the waters you would expect—cars may turn into explosive fireballs, stacks of cash may appear hidden in suitcases or stuffed in trunks, and unfortunate encounters with local law enforcement will have to be swept under the rug. Allegiances are made and remade and though it is a real life story, it is no less predictable. This tale played itself out many times in the real world, and has graced the Cineplex for as long as the drug trade has existed.
None of which is to say that American Made is not perfectly entertaining and at times even intense. The simple arc of the narrative—which culminates with Seal’s involvement with the Reagan White House’s unfortunate escapades with the Sandinistas—is inherently transfixing. Liman shows a good penchant, in one of his only films based in real events, to distill a convoluted web into intelligible pieces without oversimplifying matters into absurdity or disinterest. To the contrary, the several moving pieces are kept spinning quickly enough to keep your interest.
But there is no denying that this is Cruise’s vehicle all the way through, the valiant efforts of his wife, played by Sarah Wright, notwithstanding, not to speak of Gleeson, who looks simply overmatched in this picture. No matter the fate of the individual he portrays in American Made, Cruise is a superstar because of his signature wink-wink filling up of a movie screen, his larger-than-life appearance, his trademark since at least Risky Business. American Made itself is nothing spectacular or memorable beyond the interesting historical narrative you will bask in for two hours. But it is a vehicle for a star that is perhaps the most American Made you could ever think of, and that in and of itself is simplistically entertaining.