American Made Review: By the Seat of His Pants

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With American Made, Doug Liman already had a template built for him. This film follows the same general arc, though more joyfully, than Scorsese’s Goodfellas. This film, however, is more of a tragicomedy than the more direct tragedy of that gangster drama, but it’s nonetheless exciting and, at times, insanely entertaining. That’s largely because of its star and how he plays with the material.

In the late ’70s, a CIA operative (Domhnall Gleason) recruited commercial pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), hopelessly bored in his career, to spy on the communists invading Latin and South America. But Seal’s spy plane catches the eye of one Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia) and his Medellín Cartel, who just as easily recruits Seal to help move his drugs by flashing wads of cash. Before he knows it, Seal is getting money from everyone while simultaneously on the run from everyone. But the film’s greatest move is to not make Seal out to be some swift, power hungry con man, but an easily manipulated guy going through his mid-life crisis. And that’s why Cruise is the perfect man for the job.

As Seal, Cruise’s signature manic demeanor—always with a look of slight bewilderment, even when he occasionally outsmarts—lifts the film’s tone to a place where he’s just along for the ride, and thankfully taking us with him. The script does little in its introduction to Seal to get us to feel for him or make him resonate, but Cruise sells this positively bonkers true story as a man who simply can’t believe any of it himself, but isn’t going to challenge it while it’s to his benefit.

With that, Liman aims to make a larger point about the American Dream that he doesn’t quite land due to his jovial tone. American Made aims to be a cautionary tale, one simply against human impulsiveness and more complicatedly against the government itself. Not necessary liberal or conservative in delivery, Liman warns of the games the inner workings of the government and how they can swallow the common folk. It’s a generic point to make, though made fairly well, that’s been done before, resulting in a bit of a trite overall experience.

But make no mistake, Seal isn’t immune to the film’s skewer. He’s a properly flawed figure portrayed to be in way over his head. But the way he relishes in it is so delightful and, at its most sweepingly general, relatable. Regardless, it makes for a very good time at the movies thanks to a smart marriage between Liman’s tone and Cruise’s most prominent strengths as an actor. For most of its runtime, that ends up being more than enough. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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