TL;DR – This is a movie banking on the pull of its lead star, and in some respects it works, but also it leaves you wondering what was the point of it all.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Ah the Cold War, once a time that we tried to ignore, that time when blowhards with nuclear weapons almost brought us all to ruin because of politics or ideology. We like to forget about it, but a lot of the problems of the world today can be traced right back to it, but still many don’t have a good understanding of the world that was. American Made is looking to change that, maybe, sort of, by shedding the light on some of the dirty dealings the Americans embroiled themselves in Central America, told through the story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise).
So to set the scene, it is the 1970s and things are heating up between America and the Soviet Union across the world. In particular, focus is Central and South America where the USA fears the Soviets are funnelling money and arms to help support rebels that want to topple American friendly governments. This is where Barry Seal comes into the picture, see he was a pilot, a very good pilot, and also a very resourceful man, using his position to help smuggle in Cuban products like cigars into the USA through Canada. This, of course, puts him on the radar of the CIA as someone they could use to take covert photos of training bases across Central America from his plane. So ‘Monty Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) recruits him, sets him up with his own plane and company, and sets him loose with the one condition that no one can know that the CIA is involved with a business that they called IAC … seriously that is the acronym, not even his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright). So Barry starts taking photos, but he has a growing family and the CIA aren’t going to give him a raise anytime soon, so what should a man do well, well they knew he was resourceful, and resourceful he was.
Now one of the things I am a sucker for is when a movie goes out of its way to locate you into the time and place that it is representing. This is one of the areas that American Made excels in, the cars, the hair, the outfits, everything locates you to the late 70s early 80s, which is the time span the film encompasses. Indeed, they go so far as to use older icons for the production companies at the start of the film, I love it when they made the small changes like this which are mostly useless, but they show someone cares about getting the stylistic details right. You see this across the movie as a whole with its production design, as well as the locations. It’s really interesting to have seen the rise of the state of Georgia becoming one of the go to places to film in the USA, especially if you are representing the south in some way, and while it does not work for every film it really fits the tone here. As well as this, actually filming in Columbia gives the film a texture with the trees, the buildings, with the colour of the ground, all the little things that you just can’t replicate in a set as well as you can on location.
When it comes to the acting, as I said at the start, a lot of this film is based on the star power of Tom Cruise. Now, this is a lot to put on Tom because nearly all of the film is predicated on Barry Seal’s life and his perspective, so it is paramount that he creates a character that is sympathetic or at least someone we can relate too, and for the most part I think he does just that. You really get the feeling that Barry is someone who doesn’t realise just how far he is down the rabbit hole, but when he does, he plays the different rabbits off each other so he can come out on top. Even going back to some of his early movies Tom has always had a certain cocky sureness to his acting, and while it can be a bit hit and miss these days, I think it works amazingly well here. Now one of the interesting things about a lot of Tom’s latest films is that they have always paired him off with a strong female co-lead, you see that in Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Jack Reacher (review), and The Mummy (review). Now, this has often led to really condescending articles like ‘The Best place for a Strong Women in Hollywood is next to Tom Cruise’ which consistently undervalue the strength of the co-leads in these film. Indeed, American Made is no exception, because for me personally, I felt Sarah Wright gave the strongest performance in the film as Lucy Barry’s wife. Not only did she have some of the best lines in the film and delivered them with such force, but she created a character that was instantly relatable, and you could connect with her arc throughout the film. Now, of course, we have to mention Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the CIA operative ‘Monty Schafer’ and who is Barry’s handler. Domhnall is an actor that I hadn’t seen much of before he appeared in Harry Potter, but since then he has been popping up all over the place, on so many great films, like everything from The Revenant (review) to Star Wars (review) and in-between. Here he gives another great performance as the CIA operative that might be just as in over his head as Barry is.
Now as far as the story goes, I think on the whole it is quite the compelling ride from start to finish, now because we are discussing the story there maybe [SPOILERS] from this point onwards. One of the things the story is always doing is making sure that you can follow along both through the method of delivery, Barry talking about his life to a camera which becomes the film’s framing device, but also through maps, news footage, and graphics that film uses to keep you engaged and up to date. This really helps you engage with the film and its narrative, and keeps it working even when the film jumps through the years. Now American Made is ‘Based on a true story’ but it clearly takes a lot of liberties on what happened in the past. Of course, it is hard to really nail down what actually happened in Central America, but there are a number of things that happened out of order in the movie, or were slightly tweaked to help the narrative progress. It is not a big problem but it was there.
However, the bigger issue was often what they left out, for example as Barry is flying into Nicaragua you can see a lot of ship wrecks, but the movie fails to tell us of America’s role in placing mines in commercial harbours in the country, indeed you can read all about it here. This gets to the heart of my big issue that I had with American Made, indeed it was the thing I was left pondering on the way out of the cinemas, what was the point of the film? All throughout the film it felt like they could not decide what tone they wanted for the film, was this a ‘go America’ kind of film, or was this a ‘look how dubious America was’ kind of film? American Made is clearly trying to be something more than just the life of Barry Seal, it is trying to give a commentary on this time in history and America’s actions, but it can’t decide what that commentary is. This is not helped by a couple of parts of the film feeling like they are dragging to more things went on, which weakened the ending. As well as this, there were some story elements that did feel really predictable, like when Lucy’s brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones) appears and you can probably chart his enter act in the first minute he is on screen, and you would likely be right.
In the end, do we recommend American Made, yes, yes we do, the acting is top notch, the action sequences are great, the history of the time is really interesting and ripe for exploring in this format, and Tom Cruise can still command his presence almost all by himself. There were just a couple of things that held it back for use, but none of them stopped us from enjoying American Made.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of American Made
Directed by – Doug Liman
Written by – Gary Spinelli
Inspired by – The Life of Barry Seal
Music by – Christophe Beck
Cinematography by – César Charlone
Edited by – Saar Klein, Andrew Mondshein & Dylan Tichenor
Starring – Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Connor Trinneer, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez & Caleb Landry Jones
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: na; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R