So this is one of the rare times that we in the UK get a film a good month before it’s released in the US. I can’t remember the last time this happened, much less for a film with America in the title. But here we are with American Made, the new film reuniting Doug Liman and Tom Cruise after the success they had with Edge of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat as it now seems to be called), and American Made is another fun experience.The film focuses on Barry Seal, a pilot working for TWA who ends up being hired by the CIA in 1978 to fly reconnaissance missions in South America. As the years go on, Seal’s role in the CIA expands, including him being a courier of information from General Noriega in Panama and running guns to the Contras in Nicaragua, alongside being hired by the Medellin Cartel to transport cocaine to the US. Now the film does a good job at showing the lack of morals held by the CIA. They were willing to help Seal in some areas, such as relocating him and his family to Mena, Arkansas so Seal could avoid being arrested on a drug charge, but even this is so they can have a tighter hold on Seal. Throughout the film, the CIA turns a blind eye to the awful things Seal does, mainly his work as a drug trafficker, in order to retain Seal as a useful source of information to stop Communism spreading in South America. There’s this sense that the CIA justify all the horrible things that happen as a result of Seal’s actions as necessary to stop communism, but it is clear that nothing Seal is doing is justifiable. The film also shows just how messy and complicated everything Seal did when employed by the CIA was, with maps needed to show just how complicated it all was. However, this complicated nature means that some elements of the plot have to be given less attention, I wanted more scenes involving General Noriega and a few more scenes to explore the impact Seal had on Mena. There were interesting elements about how the residents of Mena were turning a blind eye to what Seal was doing because he was helping the town, but the film doesn’t go into enough detail in this area.
Performance wise, the film is a standout. Tom Cruise continues to show that his best skill as an actor is playing an arrogant arsehole. Throughout the film, Cruise shows Seal as someone who is in over his head, but is unwilling to admit that he is in trouble and enjoys what he is doing, even if it is destroying the lives of countless people. In some ways, he kind of reminds me of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street in terms of a complete lack of empathy for what he’s doing for most of the film. By the time the film ends though, Cruise does get more sympathy from his performance, making Seal a more nuanced character. Domhnall Gleeson meanwhile is a complete scene stealer as Schafer, Seal’s CIA handler. Gleeson plays the character as a complete sociopath, no empathy whatsoever, manipulating everything to ensure that the CIA is always on top and abandoning people when they are no longer useful, but he does it with a degree of charm that makes you understand why Seal fell into his grasp in the first place. Sarah Wright as Seal’s wife Lucy is solid, if underdeveloped. There are interesting elements about her complicity in what Seal is doing, her relationship with those in the Medellin Cartel and her role in the money laundering, but this side of the film isn’t explored enough. There are also solid performances from Caleb Landry Jones as JB, Seal’s brother in law, although to go into detail would spoil the film, Alejandro Edda who makes Jorge Ochoa of the Medellin Cartel a good manipulative character, and Robert Farrior who gives a good impression as Oliver North, although this side of the film could have been explored more. There is however an actor who is completely wasted in the film and that’s Jesse Plemons as Mena’s Sheriff Downing. It feels like the character was more developed in the script, with a greater look at how Mena was impacted by Seal, but had to be cut out for the pacing of the film, which is a shame.
On a technical level, the film does a good job of replicating the feel of the 1970s and 80s, not only in the production design and the costume design, but with the way it was filmed, the whole cinematography having a bit of a grainy feel to evoke the feel of films from the period. The editing does a good job of maintaining the pace of the film along with using cartoons and news footage to fill in the background details, making sure that we know as much about the events we see in the film as possible.
Overall, American Made is a good fun experience. It’s nothing really groundbreaking but it’s a great look at the life of Barry Seal in his time in the CIA and how the CIA was willing to turn a blind eyes to the horrific things Seal was allowing as long as it helped their agenda, all of it anchored together by an excellent performance from Tom Cruise.
My Rating: 4/5