Overview: Doug Liman and Tom Cruise re-team to give us the dark spiritual sequel to Top Gun we never had. Universal Pictures; 2017; Rated R; 115 minutes.
The American Dream: American Made is the mostly true story of Barry Seal, an American pilot who became a smuggler for the CIA, DEA and Medellin Cartel. In the vein of films analyzing chaos through entertainment like Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, American Made looks back at a final frontier in American history. In interviews, Liman and Cruise refer to piloting in the 80s as the last bastion of the wild west. An unrestricted outlaw country in the clouds. It’s something hinted at in Top Gun, that freedom a man like Seal might crave from traditional confines and structures, only accessible through the very institutions that might shackle them to the ground.
These actions are all legal, of course, as long as Seal does it for the good guys. Even when he doesn’t work directly for the “good” guys, they can turn a blind eye as long as he makes them happy. America is so often called the land of opportunity, but American Made makes clear the opportunity is certainly not equal. Furthermore, it all comes down to who is handing out the opportunity.
Seal is a thrill-seeker, taking every opportunity to make life all that more exciting for himself. It’s not a Breaking Bad situation where he’s entering a seedy underworld for the betterment of his family, only to end up using that as an excuse for his illegal activity. Seal is serving his country because he loves the rush. As a pilot, he can outmaneuver anyone. It’s nothing but clear skies for Seal on his home turf. But the poor bastard can’t see the tracks being laid beneath him. Soon enough, you’re trapped in the same atmosphere as him. You can’t blame him.
The Dynamic Duo & Then Some: Liman’s direction in collaboration with César Charlone’s (City of God) cinematography zigs and zags around to get us into the mindset of Seal. The ground cinematography is framed through near-documentarian style framing and cuts. Handheld imagery implements everything from a light brevity before transitioning into brisk urgency. The energy pops off the screen and the entertainment is contagious. When Cruise/Seal is flying through the sky, imagery is sweeping and vast. Planes swoop by, taking our breath and collective expectations with it.
Liman has the benefit of knowing the power of Tom Cruise as an actor. It’s common knowledge Cruise can do physical stunts well enough for a man his age and pull off one hell of a smirk. But Liman knows the vulnerability Cruise can bring to his roles. His role in American Made lacks the subversion of Edge of Tomorrow, where Cruise plays almost entirely against type as a coward turned hero. Here, Cruise’s charisma is emboldened stupidity rather than a figure of heroic stature. We get that trademark movie star grin juxtaposed with activities that put him in the crosshairs of the world’s most dangerous institutions.
Domhall Gleeson, one of our secretly most versatile actors working today, challenges Cruise’s energy with a stern but rock star style CIA operative Monty Schafer. He jives along to the excessive montage sequences that comprise the first portion of the film “We’re expanding operations, Barry!” Schafer is good at his job and he knows it. If capitalism and war profiteering had a mascot, his name would be “Domhall Gleeson starring as Monty Schafer.”
Sarah Wright acts opposite Cruise as Lucy Seal and, per unfortunate tradition for these types of films, is not given much to do beyond the role of “wife.” That said, Wright is clearly a capable actress and delivers a strong performance as a woman undergoing a whirlwind of emotion. Unlike in a film like Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, here there’s a legitimate marriage and the Seal family filled with support and concern. Wright and Cruise sell the hell out of it. Although, there’s definitely something to be said about casting an actress nearly 20 years Cruise’s younger as his wife. It is okay to acknowledge your age, Tom. We still love you as an actor.
I keep referencing Wolf of Wall Street in this review, but it’s almost impossible not to. The two films share similar DNA in how they focus on their real life subjects, a rambunctious energy that one might mistake for condoning their actions. Given how the films (and real life stories close out) the legitimate facts show us how well things work out for these men at the end of their runs. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. When a candle burns this brightly at both ends, there’s bound to be some explosive retribution.
Overall: American Made showcases one of the last American outlaws in a proverbial Wild West located above the clouds. Liman, Cruise and company don’t let the audience ride that high forever and smack them with a healthy dose of reality to boot. Barry Seal might have been working for the good guys but the good guys certainly weren’t looking out for him.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures