You may not know the name Barry Seal, but you know his story. You know Pablo Escobar, the Iran-Contra Affair, American paternalism towards Central America. You know the American Dream.
“American Made” tells a story not so much based on, but rather loosely inspired by, Seal’s life, who, as depicted in the film, was a commercial pilot-turned-CIA operative (Tom Cruise, “The Mummy”) tasked with taking aerial photographs of communists in Nicaragua, then with delivering captured Russian arms to the Contras in Honduras, who then became a drug runner for the Medellín Cartel in Colombia (serving a young Pablo Escobar). He was punished by the U.S. government not with prison but with a promotion, assigned to manufacture and capture evidence that the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua were working in the drug trade with the Medellín Cartel. It was the ’80s. And it was crazy.
And the film knows it. It draws heavily from its predecessors — black comedies that highlight episodes in capitalist power and collapse in recent history, like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short”— and appropriates the bombastic narrator, who addresses the audience with a sly satisfaction and promises if not warns that everything you see really happened.
That’s good enough for Cruise, whose recent roles (the last five of which are three different franchises and two science fiction action films) read more like the bad side of a big studio contract than a quality film guide. He’s in a different mode here (and, to note, at $50 million, which is no small amount, this is the tightest budget of a Cruise movie in ten years). He’s got the charisma, sure, but at the film’s key moments, for better or worse (and it’s often the latter), Cruise seems locked into one emotion: effortless cool, yet astonished and bewildered. Every crest has a trough, and Cruise doesn’t sufficiently dive into depths of paranoia and despair that defines his life after his CIA career in the film’s denouement.
If there are other characters, they’re barely drawn. Excusable is Seal’s CIA contact, Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, “Brooklyn”), who serves as a plot driver, but inexcusable is Seal’s long-suffering wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright, “Marry Me”), who is given so little to do, it’s as if second-time screenwriter Gary Spinelli (“Stash House”) hasn’t paid attention to years and years of disappointment and anger over poorly written female roles. Lucy gets angry with Barry at first, and then takes the ride for the money, and we know nothing of how she’s really feeling.
The problem is that while antecedents of “American Made” are well directed and acted on top of a compelling story, “American Made” can only claim the last of those attributes. Doug Liman, the otherwise competent but not outstanding director behind “The Bourne Identity” and the more recent Cruise action film “Edge of Tomorrow,” is the weak link here. Handed on a plate an absurdly great plot, Liman mangles his film with utterly bizarre filmmaking choices. In order to ape the sort of faux documentary style promulgated by “The Big Short” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Liman features a number of cut-aways to photographs and historical footage, but none help move the story along. Cinematographer César Charlone (“Blindness”) escalates the shaky camera work of “The Big Short” to something much more dizzying, if not nauseating, though sometimes. The worst offense is a seemingly absent understanding of how shots ought to be constructed. Charlone’s cinematography is beyond chaotic: it’s an assault on spatial logic. It's hard to describe, but the best analogy at hand currently is if the director were a spastic eight-year-old given a 35mm camera and instructed to make a two-hour film in just as much time. All the more stranger is that Tom Cruise, one of the biggest movie stars of all time, appears in nearly every slipshod frame. Liman may have been visually uninteresting before, but with “American Made” he verges into visual repugnancy.