In his best performances, Tom Cruise often gives off the impression that he’s getting away with something. Whether it’s Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia or Maverick in Top Gun, the 55-year-old actor burrows deep into his characters’ ability to hustle, scam or charm all those around him. The men he portrays are almost always full of shit, but because it’s Cruise playing them, they’re also very fun company. There are many reasons he’s been a movie star for decades, but that might be among the most crucial: No matter how cocky or ridiculous he or his characters can be, we don’t mind being taken for a ride.
The true-life drama American Made is powered by Cruise’s catch-me-if-you-can spirit, exuding a showy, impish disposition that’s sometimes grating but often enticing enough that we forgive its limitations. Aspiring to be Goodfellas but more closely aligned with American Hustle’s manic irreverence, the film has a doozy of a story to tell, and so naturally it would have been far more effective if it had simply told its story rather than endlessly marveling at its own madcap absurdity. And yet, Cruise buoys American Made’s flop-sweat intensity because he seems to understand his character’s desperate, ingratiating whirligig restlessness from the inside. This is that rare time that one of his slick charmers lets you see behind the curtain—and what a fascinating sight it is.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, who from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s lived an incredible life—not that he could tell many people about it, mind you. A TWA pilot enjoying a lucrative side hustle by smuggling Cuban cigars along his commercial routes, he’s busted by Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA agent who offers him an alternative to prison: do reconnaissance for the U.S. government instead. Soon, Barry is zipping around South America under the guise of being the proprietor of a private-plane company, taking surveillance photos and, eventually, serving as a courier to America’s interests in the region. That would be enough excitement for most men, but the CIA doesn’t quite realize what they’ve unleashed, and once what will become the Medellin Cartel apprehends Barry and convinces him to transport drugs for them into the United States, it only ignites the man’s hunger for money and thrills.
Barry talks to the camera through a series of camcorder-recorded confessionals, but these interludes don’t provide a peek into Seal’s rationale or philosophy. One of the elements of Cruise’s performance that’s so appealing is its commitment to render Barry as opaquely as possible. Always calm under pressure, always able to flash the pearly whites at the first sign of danger, Barry could be Jerry Maguire or Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt if they had no shame or moral code. The whiff of decency that Cruise’s characters normally possess—or come to discover in themselves—can’t be detected in American Made, and the nakedness of the portrayal wouldn’t be so enticing if it wasn’t Cruise playing him. The bulletproof star we’re used to seeing in M:I and Jack Reacher is stretched and strained as Barry tries to juggle competing interests while facing myriad plot twists and shifting allegiances.
American Made was directed by Doug Liman, who first worked with Cruise on the underrated action-thriller Edge of Tomorrow. They seem to encourage a risk-taking attitude in one other, and where Edge of Tomorrow was a playful, witty summer blockbuster, American Made consistently tries to puncture the self-importance of the crime-drama biopic by emphasizing the rollicking, life-or-death stakes of Seal’s everyday existence. Shooting on what’s meant to appear to be different film stocks and featuring a brazen collection of jukebox rock hits, the movie exudes some of the ironic, controlled experimentation of a Steven Soderbergh film, playing like a bizarre combination of The Informant! and Che. The rampant self-consciousness of American Made’s too-good-to-be-true storytelling never settles down, but Liman lets the rambunctious energy and blatant cinematic borrowing swirl so passionately that you get caught up in his and Cruise’s fervor.
Amidst the rush, though, American Made does try to provide commentary about America’s hypocritical drug wars and foreign policy during the ’80s, letting Seal’s incredible tale serve as our entry point into the world of Manuel Noriega, the Contras and the Sandinistas. Gleeson perhaps overdoes his portrayal of this hotshot CIA agent—apparently, most everything in American Made that’s worth doing is worth overdoing—but the movie’s good-times exuberance proves to be a bit of a feint, satirically echoing an era in which the United States treated its Southern neighbors as malleable participants in its impetuous, ill-advised adventures. Cruise doesn’t quite nail Barry’s Louisiana accent, but otherwise he embodies that foolhardy, what-me-worry entrepreneurial spirit that is so deeply, callously American.
There’s much to quibble about in American Made. As Barry’s long-suffering wife, Sarah Wright is left with an even thinner role than most put-upon-spouse characters in this type of film. The fact that Wright is more than 20 years younger than Cruise is, of course, never mentioned, even though it makes every scene between them faintly ridiculous. (The real Barry Seal was married three times, although none of them was named Lucy.) And the film’s narrative arc will be familiar to anyone who has spent time watching crime dramas: The more exuberant the montages are when Barry is making money hand over fist, the more chaotic and despairing they’ll be later once everything takes a turn for the worse.
But despite its shortcomings, American Made can be deceptively nuanced, as Liman and Cruise put care into their depiction of a natural born charmer who may eventually find his luck has run out. For a film meant to feel slapdash, Liman orchestrates some really impressive suspense sequences that are shocking in their offhanded craftsmanship. Barry Seal sometimes literally flew by the seat of his pants, and more than 30 years after Top Gun, it’s oddly satisfying to see Cruise play another pilot—one who’s trying to appear just as confident and in control as that arrogant young Maverick. Greedy and corrupt, Seal had to be a hell of a showman to persevere and prosper. Ageless and eternally compelling, Cruise honors a fellow survivor.
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda, Mauricio Mejia
Release Date: September 29, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.