Movie Review: “American Made” – Canadian Approved

Written by Jeremiah Greville October 07, 2017

American Made - Tom Cruise and Domhnall Gleeson

Pilot. Smuggler. Gun-runner. Informant. Those words may describe Barry Seal, the main character of American Made, but don’t really bring to mind Tom Cruise. Yet it’s Cruise’s effortless charm and star power that drives the narrative of his newest film and makes you care about a criminal. He remains one of the last true movie stars of any generation, and here proves why. Barry Seal is not a good man, yet Cruise makes him a captivating rogue. But like so many Cruise films, he’s playing less a character than a variation of himself. Barry Seal is just another face Cruise wears. And frankly, that’s okay. You come for Cruise, you get Cruise! Cruise piloting, Cruise smuggling. Cruise gun-running. Just NOT Cruise running, which–yes–surprised me too.

American Made stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who becomes a central figure of the Iran-Contra affair and Medellin Cartel. It follows his recruitment by the CIA and work with several criminal organizations, along with his eventual work for the White House. The narrative is framed using home video confessions that cover these specific eras in Seal’s criminal life. Cruise, as Seal, introduces each new moment in a home movie, speaking directly to the camera. This is a film made for Cruise’s charm, and each of these framing scenes allows him an opportunity to win you over. While American Made is based on true events, the director has described it as a “fun lie based on a true story.” This is not a movie about history, but you might find yourself learning anyway.

“America at its f—king finest!”

Like 2015’s The Big Short, American Made takes a complex historical topic and makes it slightly easier to understand. Unlike The Big Short, informing you about the past is not the point. This film is a showcase for a larger-than-life (and larger than truth) figure first and foremost. That’s not to say there’s no further point to telling this story–far from it. If American Made has anything going on under the surface–and it does–it’s a message that cuts especially deep in recent years: don’t trust your institutions, trust yourself. But that message is intentionally undermined at every opportunity. In fact, if American Made has anything to say at all, it’s that there’s no point, no consequence, no deeper meaning to life. It’s a film that negates its own politics and existence, subsequently and paradoxically proving them.

cruise2

So, it helps that American Made is pretty fun to watch. It dances along the border between comedy and drama from line to line and scene to scene. Several moments where Seal interacts with the cartels are played with a sharp tension that immediately gives way to humorous relief. Like a surprise trap door giving way to a bouncy landing. The shaky cam and low-budget, low-fi presentation always leaves you expecting a ‘turn’. You expect the floor to drop out, and you expect the fall to hurt. But director Doug Liman never really gives in. The turn never comes, and the fun keeps on rolling. American Made might technically be a drama, but never allows the dramatic to overwhelm the comedic. It’s a comedy, a drama, as well as a biographical crime film. And it remains comedic right up to the end.

“That was the day I joined the CIA.”

But this conflicting presentation meant that there were very few laughs in the theatre I attended. I was laughing, but nobody else was. The audience for American Made has been put in an awkward position by the filmmakers: it’s considered rude to laugh during a drama, but this is a very funny movie at times. And as I’ve said before, this is a film that plays with its own seriousness. So there were many moments of genuine humour where I could tell the audience was hesitating to laugh. They didn’t know if they should, or if they were allowed to. While I don’t think this makes American Made a bad movie, I think it will affect the enjoyment of some filmgoers. If you’re the sort to feel embarrassed in those situations, you might want to skip it.

American Made - Tom Cruise

As for the movie itself, American Made is a joy. Cruise smirks his way through difficult subject matter and fills Seal with a lust for life rarely seen on screen. His famously smug grin is perfect for Seal, who maintains a self-deluded composure even as he rides a child’s bike away from an airplane accident while covered in cocaine, deals with family homicide and Central American prison, and hides increasingly ridiculous amounts of money around his home. Domhnall Gleeson as CIA agent Monty Schafer is a delight, but finds himself playing both straight-man and buffoon depending on what the scene needs. As a purely fictional character, Gleeson’s Schafer seems to represent Liman’s take on the CIA–a bumbling, audacious, over-powered and morally grey organization.

“Business was booming.”

But while I maintain that American Made is a fun, entertaining film, it isn’t a laugh-out-loud experience. Apart from Cruise and Gleeson, the rest of the cast is mostly wasted. Sarah Wright is fine as Barry’s wife Lucy, but doesn’t have much to work with. And Caleb Landry Jones is as uncomfortably sleazy here as he was in Get Out earlier this year. He’s definitely found a niche playing a creepy pale southern bigot. While he was interesting to watch, his presence was jarring and didn’t mesh with Cruise’s controlled demeanour. Similarly, since this is a film that undermines its own message (thus proving it), it leaves very little impact. Nobody will be talking about American Made in a few weeks, and I suspect I’ll forget I even saw it in a few years.

American Made - Tom Cruise and Domhnall Gleeson

American Made is another solid entry from Doug Liman and Tom Cruise, following their wonderful 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow. Liman has shown that he can deftly handle difficult subject matter with irreverence and skill, and Cruise is as good as ever. The movie is a solid comedy and drama, with just enough substance to underwrite it’s lack of meaning. But it ultimately might not be for everyone. This is a historical character piece and social commentary, not an action or adventure. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny or tragic. In other words, just because the CIA, DEA, ATF, FBI, and State Police wanted Barry Seal, doesn’t mean you have to.

My Rating: 7.5/10

American Made - Theatrical Poster

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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