By: Kevin Jordan
This actually happened.
If the only thing you think of when you hear the word contra is up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-b-a-select-start, you’re not alone. Even with as much history as I consume, I still haven’t jumped into the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s involving the Central and South American rebels and their U.S. backing. But, I did know of them prior to watching American Made, which probably puts me ahead of most people. Also, I never did beat that game in just three lives.
I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise the human, but I am a big fan of Tom Cruise the actor. I especially like him when he plays against type. In other words, when he’s not sprinting somewhere or hiyaah-ing people. In American Made, Cruise plays Barry Seal, and actual guy who flew covert missions for the CIA, including capturing photographs of enemy Junta camps and running guns to arm the contras. I know that sounds exactly like Cruise’s typical characters. Admittedly, I thought the same thing prior to this film because the only thing I knew about it was the movie poster, that Tom Cruise is in it, and that it’s billed as an action-comedy. Just trust me or look at this actual photo of Barry Seal.
Believe me now? The actual story begins with TWA pilot Barry Seal. Barry is bored of his job, smuggles Cuban cigars, and doesn’t have sex with his scorching-hot southern belle of a wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright). One night, Barry is approached by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who blackmails and bribes Barry into working for him. It starts with Barry taking the photos, but Barry is soon captured by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who would eventually come to be known as the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel. They offer Barry a lot of money to smuggle drugs back to America for them and Barry’s only concern is how much cocaine he can carry in his CIA-gifted plane.
The film follows the same formula as movies like Gold and The Wolf of Wall Street. The hero rises to the top, has piles of money and spends a lot of it, then crashes back down to Earth in spectacular fashion. What makes this movie more fun than those two is that Barry is just a schlub in way over his head. The lead characters in those other two movies are both conniving thieves trying to screw people out of their money, whereas Barry is just doing what people ask him to do because the money is really, really good. Okay, Barry is not completely innocent. He has a deal with the cartel to trade some of the guns to them for shipping cocaine back to the United States, and Barry gets a massive amount of money. And he figures it is fine because many of the contras don’t really want to fight anyway, but they are still getting some of the guns. Incidentally, those are not the same contras in the Nintendo game. The Nintendo guys are dead serious.
Of all of the Tom Cruise movies I’ve seen, I’d argue that this is one of his top five performances. Barry is a lovable schmuck that gets to play secret agent and live it up in a massive house in Arkansas with his wife and kids. He doesn’t have to sprint anywhere or hold his breath for eight minutes or shoot a gun. All he has to do is fly a plane, be a bit of a southern goofball, and sprinkle some trademark Cruise cockiness on top. You will root for Barry, not just because Agent Schafer is an arrogant prick, or because drug lords are bad people, but because Barry is friends with those drug lords and is genuinely just trying to provide for his family.
Gleeson is also really good, delivering an agent who clearly looks down upon Barry and treats him little better than plastic eating utensils. Schafer never grows a conscience and never does anything to defend Barry. He doesn’t even try to get Barry more money when Barry asks for what is essentially hazard pay. Then, there’s Lucy. Wright isn’t given much to do, but she owns the little she has. Lucy tries to have morals a couple of times, but succumbs to the riches as quickly as Barry. But, she’ll defend her family to the death, even if it means giving up everything they’ve amassed from Barry’s adventures.
American Made is neither an action film nor a comedy, but does contain a bit of both. As I have said in past reviews, I love a good based-on-a-true-story history film, especially one that doesn’t tell me a story I already know. This one keeps the story front and center by not overdoing the action and comedy, but using it in just the right places to enhance the tone the film. It’s the kind of move that makes you want to read more about what actually happened and about the full scope of events referenced. As much as I enjoy Mission: Impossible and every science fiction movie Tom Cruise does, American Made reminds us that Cruise isn’t just an adrenaline junky who must run everywhere he goes. Now, if you’ll excuse…b-a-select-start.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and look at that picture of Seal again. Seriously, that guy.