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American Made: Tom Cruise's swagger spurs political dark humor

American Made is a swaggering picaresque thriller with enough surface-level fun that livens its untamed abandon and succinct details.

After the acrid failure of The Mummy earlier this summer, Tom Cruise proudly returns with American Made to occupy the plane cockpits, scare others with his fly-bys, and flash his boyish grins again like in the glorious days of Top Gun. He doesn't look the part as 300-pound “multi-talented” pilot Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, but the star coolly owns his role in this boisterous Goodfellas-inspired biopic written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman (Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow).

The movie is framed by Seal’s comments in his VHS-taped diary for the character to self-reflect and for Liman to provide more credibility to the narrated events between Carter’s 1976 and Reagan’s 1986. From the start, our anti-hero looks quite a character, performing derring-dos as a civilian pilot at TWA. This exhausting routine of flying leaves his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) sexually unsatisfied. Moreover, it motivates the thrill-seeker inside Seal to take whatever chance out of the ennui.

Hope, or what seems to be hope, comes in the form of agent Schafer (Dohmnall Gleeson, underplaying the role so that his facial hair doesn't make this government office worker stand out). Assigned by Schafer, Seal works for an agency called ICA, which even his wife thinks is made up. He flies recon missions and collects pictures of certain tactical locations in Central and South America—you know, it’s still about the Cold War. The next scene shows us why Seal fits the task as his light aircraft whooshes overhead the bases of freedom fighters. Though one of his boisterous shenanigans leads to a near-crash, that leaping-before-looking attitude works in his favor. Still, what starts as ecstatic and rewarding soon finds itself in a slope more slippery than anything Seal can fathom.

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Visible threats pile up as Liman introduces more agents of chaos into a puzzling equation. The first sign of this turbulence is when CIA wants Seal to operate a liaison with General Noriega (Alberto Ospino) in Panama. Then Seal is noticed by the Medellín cartel in Columbia and forced to transport their “cargo” to the swamp of Louisiana. The payment is tremendous, and he just goes with the staggering flow of employers, thanks to the word of mouth about “the crazy gringo who always delivers.” As Seal is pleasing his indigent of a wife, DEA bats their eyes on his trips. His family must move to Mena, Arkansas, where the unfavorable tangling takes place—Seal gives the regional economy a boost with money laundering. American Made often jumps back to the VHS tapes to accent a noxious event—like Seal’s bitter remark on his brother-in-law JB (Caleb Landry Jones, possibly reprising his role in Get Out). Though the subplot regarding JB and the Mena sheriff (Jesse Plemons) seems carelessly executed in the editing room, this redneck slips into Seal's life and screws it up when the man already has a mouthful of problems.

As the smuggler expands his business, the plot transitions from Seal's total passivity to his heedless gratification. Before Seal knows it, he’s moving weapons for Schafer to the Contras, who is revolting against the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Next, his estate becomes the training base for slack soldiers, but he’s abandoned when things go wrong for other parties. That's when The White House jumps in to push their political agenda.

Blazingly artful, the heated palette by Uruguayan DP César Charlone (City of God) primes viewers for the bullet-sweating tension. Liman seems aware of American Made being compared to The Wolves of Wall Street, and his direction confirms that won't be the case. Instead of a satirical overstatement about wealth, Seal's stacking heaps of money—in his closets and backyard—are the direct source of troubles.

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As the engine of Liman's script takes a bit long to wind itself up, Cruise keeps the audience entertained with his dedication to the role. Watching him prudently handle the drug drops or grab a baseball bat to defend himself against sunglasses-craving rebels will remind us of the committed and vigorous Cruise—a determinant absent in The Mummy. His buttcrack notwithstanding, Cruise will win many praises as he lends his physicality to Seal on tense, improvisational farce. One time is when his overweight plane is forced, on the looseness of faith, to take off on a runway too short. Another happens as he crash-lands on a suburb and turns up coated in coke before paying a kid for his bike. Unlike Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun, Seal is capable and daring in the cockpit but off-balance and vulnerable when landing for his family or the gas.

Having directed Fair Game in 2010, Liman is no stranger to the subgenre of fact-based storytelling. Here, he employs handheld camera, effectively and germanely as Kathryn Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker, to approach Seal's escapades in the 80s. There are the vintage Universal logo, the grainy texture and retro tint on images, and the locations and years squiggled in chalk-white titles. It’s all to keep the thrills alive in Seal’s low points. The situations are elevated by Liman's conduct of dark comedy—one sharp geopolitical joke about Central American countries or the time when Seal is just a hair's breadth from certain death. Liman’s depiction of the Cold War with the Eagle and the Bear—backed with nuclear weapons and fighting over their international influence—brings about the humor in the crisis.

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American Made leans a lot on peppered smart jabs (including the title) at the bureaucratic US government with their imperial tentacles. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appear, in one way or another, but Ronald Reagan and Oliver North are instrumental to Seal’s fate. They only use our reluctant anti-hero as another piece on their power chessboards, just as he is still an outsider partying with the drug lords. Also, Nancy and Ronald Reagan take up a scene with their anti-drug campaign to provide a backdrop of social ethics. American Made’s political critiques are about the costly but worthless endeavors of the US government to manipulate many uncontrollable factors all over the world.

A valuable yet disposable asset for all parties, the risky Seal can only hold the direction of his life in the sky. However, the movie’s lack of seriousness can't culminate any moral or sentimental gut-punch in the lengthy ending, which dwindles in presenting facts about the unprincipled, ill-fated pilot. For all that, it’s still a swaggering picaresque thriller about dirty political interventions in the Iran-Contra scandal, with enough surface-level fun that livens its untamed abandon and succinct details.