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true story of devious pilot Barry Seal screams cinematic potential, so much so that one wonders why it’s taken this long for a screenwriter to snap it up. From 1978 until the mid-’80s, the man collected covert data for the CIA, brought cocaine into the states for Pablo Escobar, provided guns to the Us-backed freedom fighters in Nicaragua, ran a sketchy airport out of a tiny town in Arkansas, and capped it all off with a successful stint as a DEA informant. Any fictionalised version of his life was sure to force us to the edge of our seats, right?
Wrong, and then some. Director Doug Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli have taken an undeniably high-stakes saga and somehow stripped it of all its inherent weight, opting for cool and breezy sequences over immersive storytelling.
When we first meet Seal (Tom Cruise), he’s piloting a nighttime interstate plane while cabins full of passengers (as well as his co-pilot) catch a nap. Seal’s not having a bar of it, so he flicks off the autopilot and messes with the manual steering in order to feign turbulence and jolt everyone awake. Seal is unhappy with his long-dormant life, and yearns to shake things up.
We’re barely a few minutes into the film and this is the last bit of genuine characterisation we get out of our antihero. When he’s approached by the CIA to partake in a covert operation of unparalleled scale in Central America, he takes to the job as if he were a DJ accepting a high-paying gig at a superclub — all casual and enthusiastic smiles. There’s the initial suggestion that Seal is in it for the money, but as his situation complicates, his character empties of any established cargo — all motivations fall by the wayside and he spends most of the film as a vessel as empty as one of his post-delivery airplanes.
Seal’s subsequent seven-year stint as the America’s most sought-after middleman is treated
as one long joyride. Take the wealth-amassing montage out of Scarface or Blow and stretch it out over seventy minutes and that’s basically the first two acts of American Made. He zips back and forth from one America to another, picking up and emptying cargo and collecting bags of cash for his troubles. It’s highly competent plane porn propelled by nothing but driving rock music.
Perhaps most concerning is that the riches come too easy for Seal. One opportunity after another fall into his lap and he takes each and every one of them without reservation. The obstacles are few and far between, and even when they do arise the solution is only ever a simple second away. At one point, when his growing arsenal of planes is chased mid-air by the DEA, he simply grins through the conflict and orders his fleet to fly around until the authorities run out of fuel.
Seal is stuck in a single gear, a state of being that carries over to his personal life. The danger in which he’s placed his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and their two children never seems to register. He just smirks, acts cute, and moves on his merry way.
The supporting cast of characters fare no better, though the actors do well to serve up their parts with style. Lucy is initially worried about the family remaining together, but that gripe fades into the background as she joins Seal’s one-note cash party. Seal’s CIA handler, Monty Schafer (Domhnhall Gleeson), appears out of nowhere at various instances to deliver the next bit of plot, and may as well come with a twirling moustache. Jesse Plemons’ Sheriff Downing is such a nothing character that one wonders why such a fantastic actor was hired for such a slight part.
You’d think that these flippant two-thirds were intentionally setting us up for a supercharged final act, but by the time we get to Seal’s roosting chickens, Cruise operates with just as much nonchalance. This is a character bereft of inner-conflict — untroubled by fear or doubt, or anything resembling a conscience. There’s no self-assessment, which might be acceptable if he was set-up as a sociopath, but no, he’s just a cool guy being badass into oblivion, and it makes it almost impossible to care about his fate.
Contrary to what the above suggests, American Made isn’t bereft of entertaining qualities, and the best way to enjoy it is to receive it like candy. It may lack substance, but it’s sugary enough for as long as it lasts. Just don’t expect a multi-faceted biopic about the real Barry Seal’s multi-faceted life. I suffered from that expectation, and walked away with only two words on the mind: missed opportunity.
VERDICT Solid performances and energetic direction aren’t enough turn American Made into the classic it could have been. Watchable yet ultimately airheaded.
Clockwise from left: CIA handler Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) keeps an eye on Barry Seal (Tom Cruise); Cruise’s Seal cruises the skies; Seal talks his way out of trouble with the authorities; the shifty pilot with wife Lucy (Sarah Wright).