Cruise’s role blurs reality as different kind of flyboy
Has Tom Cruise been watching a lot of Warren Beatty movies lately?
In “American Made,” a heavily fictionalized account of TWA pilotturned-drugs and arms smuggler Barry Seal, the movie star does a lot of his own flying and executes some stunts that belie his 55 years. But on the ground, the actor takes his sweet, smiling time with every rejoinder in every dialogue sequence, the way Beatty does. Cut the pauses out, rewrite the ending and “American Made” becomes a one-hour series pilot. As is, at two hours, it’s fairly entertaining even when it doesn’t quite work, directed for maximum pace by Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” cohort, director Doug Liman.
To his credit, Cruise has worked out a few tics and performance details (including a light, occasional Baton Rouge, La., drawl) in portraying a classic American weasel who thinks he’s a hero.
The real Barry Seal’s bizarre career is enough for five seasons on Netflix. He was busted for smuggling explosives into Mexico, intended for anti-Castro Cubans, in the early 1960s. Though some sources deny he was ever on the CIA payroll, most accounts put Seal in the employ of the U.S. intelligence agency, flying a private plane into Central American countries and taking surveillance photos of America’s enemies. Then Seal got rich flying cocaine and marijuana back to the States on behalf of the future members of the Medellin cartel. Seal ran an increasingly sprawling and lucrative private airport in Mena, Ark., eventually turning snitch MPAA rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity) Running time: 1:55 Opens: Thursday evening on behalf of the Drug Enforcement Agency and being outed as a CIA op by the news media.
Gary Spinelli’s script revises and deletes those and other resume items at will. The movie begins in 1978, with Cruise’s Barry, bored out of his skull, doing regional hops for TWA. In the movie, Domhnall Gleeson plays a composite figure, Seal’s grinning, upbeat CIA liaison.
“All this is legal?” Cruise asks Gleeson at one point. Sure, he answers, “if you’re doing it for the good guys.” It’s the line you hear in every Hollywood treatment of a story involving morally compromised American cocaine and/or arms dealers. “American Made” is a better, more intriguingly conflicted project than “Air America” with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as heroin smugglers in the Vietnam War. And there’s little of the tonal confusion that clobbered the recent “War Dogs.” (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as wacky Yanks dealing arms in the thick of the Iraq invasion.)
Liman’s handling of Cruise’s final scene is visually striking and properly stark. The movie doesn’t quite do its job setting up that ending, however. Much of “American Made” plays like a compressed and streamlined version of whatever screenwriter Spinelli came up with initially. Seal bumps into one historical figure after another — Panamanian dictator and CIA informant Manuel Noriega, Iran/ Contra strategist Oliver North, even a cameo from someone playing George W. Bush — in the years covered here, 1978-1986. They become a colorful, reckless blur, and often that blur is entertaining, as photographed in hot, bright, amped-up colors by cinematographer Cesar Charlone.
The real Seal, it seems, was a more ambitious, wide-ranging criminal than he’s depicted in “American Made.” Then again, nobody should go to any “based on a true story” affair for facts. It’s hard enough to get the right sort of dramatically convincing lies. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Tom Cruise plays a pilot who becomes a drug smuggler.