American Made is based on one of those incredible life-beats-fiction-any-day stories, which probably explains its jaunty tone, seriocomic approach to two crucial decades in American and South American politics, and the slightly bewildered grin that rarely leaves its lead character’s face.
It all seems unbelievable, but it isn’t, and behind the saturated period detail, retro soundtrack and animated inserts and newsreel footage is a cautionary and always relevant tale of high-level corruption in low places.
Doug Liman’s movie is loosely based on the non-fiction book American Made: Who Killed Barry Seal? Pablo Escobar or George HW Bush by Shaun Atwood. Seal (Tom Cruise) is so bored with his job as a commercial airline pilot that during one flight, just for the fun of it, he fiddles with the controls to see if anybody notices.
Seal gets an upgrade when he is recruited by Central Intelligence Agency operative Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson) to fly planes into restive countries in South America and conduct aerial surveillance. In Liman’s fast-paced movie, which packs in numerous developments revolving around the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid-1980s, Seal starts a side business in flying cocaine from Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel in Colombia alongside acting as a government spy.
It’s only the beginning. Since Seal is the “guy that gets the job done”, he gets heavily involved with the Medellin cartel as well as other government agency schemes, including supporting the armed training of Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries in his backyard. Seal and his planes are always in demand; he is seemingly immune to prosecution; the money is pouring out of his ears; his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) begins to decorate and throw parties.
With a raised eyebrow and tongue firmly in cheek, Liman and scriptwriter Gary Spinelli deliver an always watchable account of American adventurism in places where they don’t deserve to be. Part pop history lesson and part old-fashioned cautionary tale of greed and excess, the movie is propelled by a superb central performance. Tom Cruise is finally playing a real character rather than a superhero who leaps onto taxiing planes and scales skyscrapers, and he is compelling as the morally hollow pilot whose can-do attitude allows him to go places literally and figuratively.
The supporting cast is equally strong, including Gleeson as Seal’s shadowy CIA handler and Alejandro Edda as notorious Medellin cartel member Jorge Ochoa. Cruise dominates, as he has in every recent movie, but this time, it actually works in the story’s favour.