“Is all this legal?” asks Barry Seal.
“If you’re doing it for the good guys,” replies the CIA agent known as “Schafer.”
Seal, a dissatisfied TWA pilot and born troublemaker who’s just been caught smuggling cigars into the U.S., has been recruited for a mission. It’s merely the first time this ostensible bad guy has been asked to work on behalf of the so-called good guys: It all goes downhill from there. Seal is to fly to South America, using a plane provided by the CIA, to snap photos of warring insurgents on behalf of the U.S. government. Seal, a talented pilot, is to be put on the front lines of danger, and in exchange for his troubles, he’s to receive money. A lot of it—all under the front of a fake new company called Independent Aviation Consultants. It’s 1978: the Cold War is in full swing, the stakes are high. This is a mission against none other than, as Schafer puts it, the “enemies of democracy.”
“Enemies” is a funny word in this context—really, it depends on where you’re looking, and on whether you get greedy. In the new Tom Cruise movie American Made, which is based on the true story of Barry Seal, that first meeting with the CIA is just the beginning. Soon come trips to Panama to buy intel from the stone-faced Noriega; next come flights to Nicaragua to arm the contras with AK-47s in their fight against the communist Sandinistas. And that’s just the half. Over the course of his decade-long career working with the U.S. government, Seal manages also to become a drug smuggler on behalf of the nascent Medellín cartel, buddying up with the likes of Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers, who recognize him as a “gringo who delivers”: a guy who, despite ostensible national loyalties, can get the job done. Seal somehow manages to have a hand in it all. He’s Forrest Gump with a pilot’s license (but smarter), a bigger part of history than seems fathomable. The inherent conflicts of this arrangement eventually catch up with him.
It’s a good thing the movie’s director, Doug Liman, plays this up as comedy: It’s simply too wild to be believed otherwise. Seal has already been the subject of a bad Dennis Hopper movie—1991’s Doublecrossed (click at your own risk)—and there, he comes off as a hero thrown under the bus by a shady government. But in American Made, as played with a gleeful mock-heroism by Cruise, Seal becomes a comical mix of being in on the joke and, fatefully, not. It doesn’t ever seem to occur to him that trying to play both the U.S. government and the Ochoa brothers is a bad thing: smartly, or dumbly, he doesn’t let that stand in his way. This is apparently somewhat close to the spirit of the real guy, who, according to retired FBI agent Del Hahn, who once investigated Seal, “was not as smart and clever as he thought he was.” (Hahn has also written a book on the subject.)
That in mind, this movie thankfully isn’t marred by worshipful self-seriousness. It’s also, unfortunately, not much of a movie besides: It’s a funny-enough cascade of tropes and troubles that, though not unentertaining, you wish had been written and directed by other people. It’s a strange affair. The plot largely amounts to a series of escalating missions until Seal recognizes, a bit late, that he’s in too deep. It owes more than a little of its style and ideas to Goodfellas, in other words, but that’s no crime. There’s a frame narrative meant to justify a Henry Hill-esque voice-over: video diaries Seal shoots in the ’80s while on the run. That’s a screenplay crutch, but whatever. It helps to have a tour guide through the story’s weird complications.
And there are plenty. The script, written by Gary Spinelli, is pretty rote, but the best thing about American Made is still the story. At the height of being buried up to his neck in ties to the CIA and the cartels, Seal is given 2,000 acres in Mena, Arkansas, to run his operation on behalf of the U.S. government. It’s really on loan: soon, the CIA is taking some of that land back to build up an operational training ground to prepare the contras in their war against the Sandinistas. Seal hires a team of four other pilots to help out with the increasingly complicated missions—including transporting the Sandinistas back to the U.S. for training, and giving them cover. It’s a scenario that raises a ton of questions, such as: Where the hell is everybody? The sheriff in Mena is turning a blind eye because Seal is “doing a lot for the community”—i.e., bringing in money. The banks, meanwhile, won’t complain when the new family in town is giving them an excuse to expand their vaults. By the time an FBI agent shows up in Mena to investigate the influx, what’s on display is an AK-47-wielding contra on the loose and a town full of banks.
It’s a fascinating slice of history, which is undoubtedly what made the project attractive. The letdown is Liman’s decision to film all of this like a bargain-brand Adam McKay, circa The Big Short. You know the movie intends to be a comedy because it’s so desperate to look like one, with all the faux-documentary, wavering handheld shots that’ve plagued single-cam TV comedies for way too many seasons. Even that style, haphazard as it’s intended to seem, takes talent to pull together and make something look like a movie. But American Made often looks like shit: you’d be right to wonder whether the handheld nonsense of its images amounts to a style, or whether Liman simply can’t frame a shot.
That’s a little disappointing from the director of the last Cruise project of genuine interest, 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, but it’s not exactly an outlier in the recent output of either of these guys. This is the second 2017 release for each Cruise and Liman. Cruise treated us to The Mummy earlier this year; Liman to the little-seen conceptual snoozefest The Wall, a movie that tried to convince us Aaron Taylor-Johnson could carry an entire movie. (He couldn’t.) The fun of Edge of Tomorrow was that it gave Cruise the chance to nudge-nudge wink-wink his way through a role in which he basically gets cucked by one of his native genres: the action movie. He dies and dies and dies again, and the movie indulges our hunger to see Cruise Do The Most while also, in a move against type, seeing him fail. It’s sick—it’s fun.
American Made has no such gimmick, which in the first place answers the question of how good a Liman-Cruise collab can function without one. I’m glad it was a comedy, but what’s funny here was always going to be funny so long as Cruise was around to flash that smile and amicable wit on cue, beat for beat. What gets a little lost are the details. Seal, as represented here, is preternaturally good at all of this. He’s fearless at negotiating a mission with the cartel when it has essentially kidnapped him—with the likes of Pablo Escobar! There’s nary a sweat bead on his brow, which only really works because Cruise is in the driver’s seat. But, like, who is he? This movie feels like the CliffsNotes version of every movie it’s trying to be. The basic bullet points are all here, but presented in summary fashion. On the other hand, the movie avoids wearing out its welcome, accordingly. You won’t be bored. All the good scenes are too short, but all the bad scenes are also, thankfully, too short.
It’s a perfectly fine movie. There’s at the very least a bit of comedy gold here, like the sight of Seal and his family running out of places to bury their money, or a clever gag in which Seal and his team “outrun” the fast new jets of the DEA by going so slowly that those jets lose fuel and have to abandon the chase. There’s a sense of mischief to the character that wholly justifies Cruise playing the role. As the CIA agent Schafer, meanwhile, Domhnall Gleeson hardly makes a mark, but when does he ever? Even my new favorite string-beany weirdo, Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Seal’s troublesome brother-in-law, seems hemmed in. Only Cruise stands out, but I guess that’s how you know it’s a Tom Cruise Movie™. You don’t need to enjoy the films themselves to enjoy the fact that Cruise seems to be having a fun time in front of the camera. He’s a movie star, so that’s worth something—just not as much as it used to be.