Editor’s Note: American Made opens in wide theatrical release today, September 29, 2017.
The Tom Cruise – or rather, Barry Seal, the Tom Cruise character – we meet in the opening scene of American Made (formerly “Mena”), Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity, Go, Swingers) rote, generic spin on the crime and corruption territory exhaustively detailed in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas 25 years ago and by countless imitators and successors (e.g., War Dogs, The Wolf of Wall Street) since then, isn’t the standard issue, self-possessed egotist Cruise has parlayed into a career spanning four decades, but a sweaty, anxious, desperate version of that character, videotaping himself in random hotel rooms confessing away his crimes and misdemeanors, feebly defending his actions with risible rationales, ultimately giving witness to the morally compromised, ethically challenged drug wars between the U.S. government and the Medellin cartel in the late ‘70s through the mid ‘80s. Apparently, Seal wasn’t just a key or central figure in the drug wars, but an indispensable one whose role, at least until now, had been relegated to a historical footnote at best.
By refusing to show the real-world fallout, except as an overly familiar morality play/cautionary story we’ve seen countless times before, director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli uncritically align themselves with the Hollywoodized idea of turning Barry Seal into a romantic anti-hero.
When American Made temporarily drops the video cam footage, it rewinds to a simpler, more stable time for Seal and his growing family. On the outside, Seal has the perfect life, including a steady gig as a TWA pilot, and a beautiful wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), content with playing homemaker and mother to Seal’s children. But for Barry, life as TWA pilot offers a steady income and solidly middle-class status, but nothing else. Boredom has set in and in Barry’s case, it’s close to terminal. When a little off-the-books Cuban cigar smuggling catches the eye of a CIA agent, Monty ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson), with an agenda of his own, Seal’s fate is all but sealed. Schafer offers Seal what he secretly wanted most: To matter, to make a difference, but also to fly a state-of-the-art, off-the-assembly-line twin engine airplane that Barry embraces literally and figuratively like his spiritual, fictional predecessor, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, once did in another Reagan-era, mainstream propaganda film, Top Gun.
Initially Schafer gives Seal a seemingly dull, repetitive task: Turning his new plane into a spy craft of sorts, flying all over South and Central America to photograph military and paramilitary groups, both allies and potential enemies of the United States. Barry’s life changes radically a second time when a refueling stop in Columbia leads to an unexpected, if not entirely unwelcome, meet-and-greet with the top echelon of the Medellin cartel: Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and the most infamous member, Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía). They make Seal an offer he can’t refuse: suitcases stuffed with cash in exchange for smuggling cocaine from Columbia into the United States. In the cartel, Seal sees the perfect opportunity to fulfill the “New American Dream” of extreme wealth, power, and status (see, e.g., the current occupant of the White House for a current example). And all while remaining a key CIA asset in the devastatingly destructive “War on Drugs” begun under President Reagan and continued under his successors in office.
Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) wasn’t just a key or central figure in the drug wars, but an indispensable one whose role, at least until now, had been relegated to a historical footnote at best.
Liman and his screenwriter, Gary Spinelli (Chaos Walking, Stash House), apparently play fast and loose with the facts of Seal’s life (“dramatic license” in case you’re wondering), but hew relatively close to the general contours and parameters of that same life, following Seal as he settles in Mena, Arkansas at the behest of his careerist handler, expands his drug-smuggling business with Schafer’s willful ignorance as an ally, and turns a massive property (also bestowed by a generous federal government) into a training ground for the Contra rebels who fought against the Communist-allied Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in the ‘80s. Seal turns every CIA directive or order into another money-making opportunity, trading guns meant for the Contras to the Columbians in exchange for cash, deliberately ignoring the consequences of his actions, both in the United States (the explosion of life-ruining drug abuse tied to the cartels) and in South and Latin America (the tens of thousands of civilian deaths euphemized away as “collateral damage” in the drug wars).
Seal’s willful blindness to the real-world consequences of his actions extends to Liman and Spinelli too. By refusing to show the real-world fallout, except as an overly familiar morality play/cautionary story we’ve seen countless times before, Liman and Spinelli uncritically align themselves with the Hollywoodized idea of turning Seal into a romantic anti-hero. And with Cruise’s white-toothed charisma – dimmed by time, but far from gone – audiences will buy into Liman and Seal’s depiction of Seal as a romantic anti-hero without a second thought or cursory reflection. Liman, Cruise, and Spinelli have certainly succeeded in turning Seal’s life into entertainment, but they’ve failed at making his life art, political art that doesn’t just depict a particular man’s life, but also his times, with all of the complexity, contradictions, and complications that implies, up to and including depicting Seal not just as a romantic anti-hero, but as the personification of a particular kind of American individualism and exceptionalism, going anywhere, doing anything, and facing few, if any consequences, to borrow the title of Graham Greene’s politically prescient novel, the embodiment of the “Ugly American.”
American Made succeeds in turning the life of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) into entertainment, but fails at creating the kind of political art that doesn’t just depict a particular man’s life, but also his times, with all of the complexity, contradictions, and complications that implies.