Film is a true story that couldn't be made elsewhere
Is there a name for the subgenre of movies like “American Made”? It's another “based on a true story” tale of a well-meaning white man who is just trying to provide for his family and unwittingly finds himself falling into a life of high-stakes, seedy activity.
We've seen this with “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” More recently, it was movies such as “War Dogs,” but whatever the package, we've seen it before. It's the new American crime story.
But even if we've been there and done that, “American Made” is a pretty slick and mostly entertaining time, thanks to a role right in Tom Cruise's wheelhouse and steady direction from Doug Liman.
When we meet Barry Seal (Cruise), he is a commercial airline pilot flying for TWA in the late '70s. He's making enough to support his lovely wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), in their Louisiana home.
But Barry's life lacks excitement until a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches Barry in an airport bar. The agent knows a lot about Barry, including the fact that he's been smuggling Cuban cigars on flights. He asks Barry if he'd like to be a contractor for the CIA.
Barry's new career begins with flying some missions and snapping some photographs over Central America. Soon he's running guns and drugs and playing all sides.
The covert CIA activity centered on battling communists during the Reagan administration is a pretty fascinating setting, in retrospect. Barry's story overlaps with the birth of the Medellin drug cartel, the rise of figures like Manuel Noriega and eventually the Iran Contra scandal. Barry becomes a bizarre sort of Forrest Gump.
Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) keeps things tense but also fun, working from a clever script by Gary Spinelli based on Seal's wild story.
The biggest knock on “American Made” is how by-the-numbers this story is, from the drug-smuggler blues to the wild extravagance as the cash starts pouring in faster than Barry can spend it.
Cruise is locked in, with a slight Southern drawl painted over his usual onscreen persona, but it's a good fit for his movie star charms. He's having fun, so the audience follows.
It's nothing groundbreaking, but “American Made” is a slick little history lesson, and a story that could only be made in America.