You’re on a barrel roll, on a wild plane ride with a pilot playing fast and loose. American Made is that plane ride, and Tom Cruise is the pilot. That engaging and somewhat reckless Tom Cruise we know from his early film, Risky Business – wide-eyed grin, ever so slightly amoral, and irrepressibly charming. He’s back.
It’s an odd moment of wonder when you settle down to watch a film you expect will be pretty enjoyable, and it then revs up and lifts off to become very, very enjoyable.
Cruise here is Barry Seal, bored TWA pilot, amiable husband to Lucy (Sarah Wright), and in need of more cash. One night, when his co-pilot falls asleep, Seal decides to wake him – and all his passengers – by getting the whole plane to jolt. Turbulence, he explains to his shaken passengers. This is not his only infraction.
Seal’s cure for boredom comes in the form of an impish genie, a CIA agent called Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson). Schafer is a character oddly reminiscent of Peter Cook’s devil in Bedazzled, and just as cruelly delightful. He delivers on the wishes, granting Seal things he’s not even yet formed in his mind, giving him licence to go hell for leather. Is it legal? Seal asks. Well, you’re working for the good guys… replies Schafer.
Seal’s assignments for Schafer snowball, through a front company called, perhaps not so inventively, Independent Aviation Consultants. IAC? The joke becomes clear as the film progresses.
The story escalates, from one crazy moment to the next, in successive whoops of jubilation. Sometimes things go very wrong, hilariously so. At one point, Seals says – and this feels so improbable: I was working for the CIA, the DEA… and Pablo Escobar.
And it is true. American Made is based on reality. Barry Seal had been a TWA pilot, and through the 70s to early 80s he was an ever reliable and fearless drug-smuggler, gun runner, and money launderer. Director Doug Liman makes that period feel glorious. Even if you’ve not lived through the late 70s and early 80s, after seeing this film, you’ll miss them. This was the time when Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and the CIA was operationally very inventive, as the Iran-Contra affair eventually revealed. Barry Seal takes us through it all, plot and counterplot, in a rollicking narrative not unlike Scorsese’s Goodfellas but even more anarchic and colourful.
American Made is a free for all, and Barry Seal is a latter-day Tristram Shandy.
His saga escalates to the tune of ‘Slippery People’, the Talking Heads’ foot-tapping track. The excitement builds up with hugely enjoyable flight scenes – improbable take-offs from too short runways, outsmarting customs aircraft in hot pursuit, and a chaotic forced landing on a suburban street. Jeopardy and farce collide and Barry Seal keeps on running – and flying. There is, of course, a price to pay.
Gary Spinelli’s script is a tightly packed delight, allowing for good ensemble playing and great performances. Cruise and Gleeson are not the only ones to provoke guffaws – every single actor, in what is a very large cast, however small the role, brings something significant to the story and adds enjoyment. The script gives Sarah Wright, as Barry’s wife Lucy, a bit less to work with than some of the other key characters, but Wright does provide great depth of character; towards the end of the film, her intelligence, integrity and resolve are clear.
The film is visually generous. César Charlone’s cinematography is a pleasure to watch, from the lush tinted scenes in Colombia to the starker, more naturalistic moments back on Barry’s home ground.
In addition to creating great action sequences, director Doug Liman has a great talent for world building. As has he previously done with The Bourne Identity, just the right details are put in place to create a hyper real feel of place, and in the case of American Made, of time as well. And he brings out something wonderful in Cruise – a comedian at heart, engaging and funny. There is a physicality and energy to this film which is memorable well after the curtain goes down.
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Cinematography: César Charlone
Cast: Tom Cruise, Domnhall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays
First published on Screenwords, August 2017