American Made

AMERICAN MADE. Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, and Domhnall Gleeson. Directed by Douglas Liman. Rated MA 15+ (Strong coarse language). 115 min.

This American biographical, historical action-drama tells the story of a US commercial pilot, who became a drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel in the 1980s with agreement of the CIA. The Director of the film, Douglas Liman began the Bourne series with his initial direction of “The Bourne Identity” (2002).

In real life, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) worked as a pilot for the US commercial airline, TWA. He was recruited in the late 70s by the CIA to fly reconnaissance missions over South America, the CIA being fearful at the time of a burgeoning communist threat in Central America. Seal was seen as suitable for recruitment by the CIA, because he was regarded by the agency as “morally flexible”.

During one of his missions, Seal is intercepted by the Medellin drug cartel which asks him to fly shipments of cocaine back to the USA. Seal agrees, and his drug smuggling comes to be tolerated by the CIA for the information that he can provide them. Seal found himself helping the CIA as informant, while smuggling drugs, guns, and engaging in drug trafficking -  all with the knowledge of the CIA, while the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and the FBI were at the same time trying to do their work.

To get more intelligence, the CIA expanded Seal’s mission to allow him to run guns, and with the knowledge of the Reagan administration, Seal delivered guns to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. When his activities got too sensitive, the CIA abandoned him, and multiple law enforcement agencies moved in to arrest him. Seal avoided serious prosecution by agreeing to provide  information which helped expose international drug trafficking. Feeling betrayed, the Cartel ensured that Seal paid the ultimate price. Subsequently, the CIA avoided being linked in any way to drug smuggling, which is an association that the White House didn't want the public to be able to misinterpret in any way.

Domhnall Gleeson plays the role of the CIA operative who catches Seal smuggling cigars across the border, and talks him into working for the CIA. Sarah Wright plays his wife, Lucy, who does her best to keep up with Seal and to keep her life in check by finding out what is really going on. She complains that with all that he is doing, she urgently needs a good cooking stove, but eventually learns to live with the huge amount of money that her husband is bringing in.

This film casts Tom Cruise in an unusual light. The film has less energy level than Cruise’s high-octane movies of old such as “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), “Vanilla Sky” (2001), and the Mission Impossible series, but its biographical thrust pushes it into the realm of true life drama, which Cruise delivers with cheeky style. True to life, Cruise acts Barry Seal in a jaunty, flamboyant way. Douglas Liman directs Cruise with confident understanding of his comic strength, and uses hand-held camera work to create the film’s feeling of frantic activity.

This is a stranger-than-fiction, adventure tale about a figure who peddled secret information, guns, and drugs, all with the knowledge of America’s chief spy agency. Different from most of Cruise’s films, the movie casts him unconventionally as an amoral, rogue figure. Douglas Liman, as Director, ensures that action scenarios create suspense, but they pull back in their thrust at times to provide almost a comic book depiction of events.

This is a film that moves with energy and pace to tell the story of a larger-than-life figure. The film, however, lacks political bite. With so much corruption around, the film chooses not to comment satirically, or thoughtfully, on the events that it depicts. It misses the chance to make the viewer think deeply about the corruption, and what actually drove Seal from TWA piloting to working on behalf of the White House via the CIA. Basically, the film provides an entertaining night out at the cinema, but focuses too lightly on the adventures of a fascinating individual.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Universal Pictures

Released September 7, 2017

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