Movie Review – American Made
Tom Cruise and Doug Liman fabricate an entertaining ride around an Iran-Contra history lesson, but without a moral compass or emotional stabilizers, the story of fallen pilot Barry Seal doesn’t land
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones
Directed by: Doug Liman
Running time: 1 hr 55 mins
By Katherine Monk
How do you rate a Tom Cruise performance other than by the clothes? His characters come out of the Tom Cruise branding machine, showcases for his trademark smile and cocky smirk. It doesn’t really matter what the movie is, Tom Cruise will always — essentially — play the same guy.
Last time we watched him wear Indiana Jones-styled safari gear in The Mummy, this time around we get to watch him run around in tight polyester blends as Barry Seal in the 1980s-set American Made.
Barry Seal was a real person, but this is a role tailor-made for Cruise. Seal was a pilot working for TWA when he got caught smuggling Cuban cigars. The CIA made him a deal he couldn’t refuse, and before long, family-guy Barry is flying guns to Nicaragua.
People said Barry was the kind of guy you couldn’t help but like. He was charming, and always ready to smile. Cruise could fly the character on auto-pilot.
Fortunately, he’s got someone else in the cockpit. Fellow pilot and friend Doug Liman is at the controls. Liman isn’t the kind of director who takes the easy or expected path. His career swerves more often than a Jason Bourne car chase, having gone from Swingers to Edge of Tomorrow, and back into action-adventure land with this period piece sporting a serrated political edge of the Iran-Contral scandal.
Because Liman’s father, Arthur L. Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate hearings on Iran-Contra, the director has a vested interest in getting the facts straight, as well as providing an entertaining history lesson on the Reagan-era and a primer on government corruption.
It’s why the movie feels a little too long. Liman’s pace is exhausting, and so is hanging out with Cruise’s myriad alter-egos. The two make a fantastic team because they both suffer from the same compulsive need to move, the same brand of cinematic attention-deficit disorder.
The chaos is fun, but you need a tail piece, emotional stabilizers and a motivational rudder to keep things from crashing into the ground.
The script, developed by Gary Spinelli — who found the story after watching Argo and seeking out other CIA scandals — does a good job keeping the focus on Barry. We watch him tell his story to a videocamera as he recounts the mayhem in chronological flashbacks.
This is where Cruise really had to demonstrate a degree of transformation, and to his credit, there are moments when you see someone other than Cruise. For a brief moment, I thought I saw Barry stare down the barrel of the lens, a defiant WTF written on his face in an honest smile. It was enough to salvage the whole performance.
Yet, I’m still not sure how much I care about Barry Seal — as a character, or even as a person. He’s about as accessible to me as Tom Cruise. There’s something genius in the casting, but there’s a hard-shell finish that comes with Cruise’s hero brand, and you can’t get passed it. All you hear is the hollow echo of an empty warehouse with the hum of a neon sign.
Liman doesn’t spend much time walking the aisles of moral abdication or personal greed. He and Cruise are having too much time flying high on action and engaging in full-throttle airplane porn to ponder consequences.
And so was Barry. The tragedy is all there: the coke-fuelled Icarus, the Double Indemnity structure, the shadow side of the Reagan era, and our perpetual need to make heroes. American Made clearly knows what it is, yet, by for the very same reason, it can’t explore the tragic side. It wouldn’t be American. It wouldn’t be Hollywood. It wouldn’t be Tom Cruise.
Liman’s film suffers from its conscious desire to remain shallow. No matter how much he puts on the screen, you still feel something is missing. The hole in the middle is truth. It’s sucked out of the airplane at altitude, along greedy characters and power-grubbing politics, leaving the aerodynamic shell that is, undoubtedly, American Made.
THE EX-PRESS, September 30, 2017