Ever since he was a kid, Tom Cruise wanted to work for the Colombian drug cartels? Not quite, but American Made, based on the true story of commercial airline pilot-turned international criminal mastermind Barry Seal, hits a lot of the same beats as Goodfellas, though it misses some it tries to hit, too. By the time Barry, in his gleeful voiceover narration, says, “The money was coming in faster than I could launder it,” I felt like I’d seen this all before, and better.
Barry is, in the typical way of stories like this, a bit of a prodigy, and a bit bored with the mundane world. He’s a hotshot, the youngest-ever commercial pilot or some such for TWA... but he’s basically a bus driver on short-haul routes, ferrying people from one dull place to another. He gets a bit of a thrill with the petty delinquency of smuggling Cuban cigars in his cockpits — I guess pilots weren’t searched much in the late 1970s, when he’s getting away with this — but the real fun comes after he is approached by CIA agent Monty Schafer and recruited to fly missions over South America taking spy photos (not in TWA planes, obviously). One thing leads to another, as tends to happen when you fall down rabbit holes of espionage and clandestine operations, and soon Barry is acting as a bagman in transactions between the Company and Panamanian strongman — and CIA informant — Manuel Noriega, and then he’s smuggling drugs into the U.S. for the Medellin cartel, which leads to (after he’s caught) becoming a DEA informant. And then comes the Iran-Contra scandal...
Director Doug Liman and Cruise, as Seal, are reteaming here after their huge 2014 success, the sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow, which also saw the actor taking on a character who is less than totally likable. But Cruise’s Edge character was merely a coward, and he learned how to be brave because he had no choice. The charm and the humor with Liman and Cruise regale us with Barry’s adventures, as charming and as humorous as they are, feels kinda inappropriate for a movie about these levels of corruption and outright lawless banditry from the U.S. federal government. I mean, these are the events that have led to the conspiracy theory — which isn’t quite so farfetched and is supported by some good evidence, some of which we bear witness to here — that the CIA was actively involved in importing cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, and that the agency’s activities were in large part responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic. (See also: the intense 2014 film Kill the Messenger, which details the work of one journalist in the 1990s who uncovered the story.)
Cruise is undoubtedly entertaining here, as is Domhnall Gleeson as Schafer, a hustling junior CIA agent looking to make a name for himself. The scene in which Barry is forced to overload a small plane with cocaine and then take off on too short a South American mountain runway is genuinely gripping. The finale, involving a simultaneous raid by agents of the DEA, the ATF, the FBI, and Arkansas state police — where Barry has set up his smuggler’s headquarters — is like a clown car of law enforcement descending and stumbling over one another. Screenwriter Gary Spinelli knows what he’s doing, mostly. The film’s one real misstep (apart from that tonal problem), and a significant way in which it misses the genius of Goodfellas, is in the depiction of Barry’s wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), who is actually a composite of the real Barry Seal’s succession of spouses. We never really understand why she stays with him; if it’s just about the money, she’s nowhere near venal enough, not that we see. Wright’s performance is fun, though, too.
But here’s the thing: Should we be entertained by this story? You can’t even call American Made’s attitude cynical; it’s more a winking shrug of acceptance of a massive Uncle Sam-approved criminal enterprise, dispensed with panache and style galore; love that vintage ’70s color palette! But really: Is this how this particular story deserves to be told? Are we now this blithe and blasé about the depths to which America can sink?