The key to Doug Liman’s new film is probably the title: American Made. The title comments on everything that comes after it, in a way that, to this viewer, indicated the essence of America in the 1980s: fucked. Everything in this picture is a little bit rough around the edges. Everything has a gilded edge. Everything is not what it seems because what it seems is perfect but what it is would be better described as vacuous garbage.
This vacuousness embodies both what’s happening in the movie, and how Doug Liman made it. And it’s epitomized by Tom Cruise.
Tom Cruise is the movie star version of America. One time, not that long ago, he was the biggest movie star in the world. But he’s not anymore. Now, he’s kind of…weird. His innocence is lost, he stands for something pretty gross, actually. I mean, we all know about Tom Cruise. We know he’s off-putting, and sort of untrustworthy, but the thing is: we don’t really mind that much.
He’s still Tom Cruise, after all. But, we know that what it means to be Tom Cruise has changed dramatically since the hey-dey of Tom Cruiseyness. Some hope that Tom Cruise might be ascendant again, might return to his glory days, become that Top Gun Cruise, or Jerry Maguire Cruise or even Magnolia Cruise. But that’ll never happen. Tom Cruise is tarnished. I know that, you know that, and Doug Liman surely knows that. Nobody, not even Tom Cruise, will make Tom Cruise Great Again.
Casting Tom Cruise to play Barry Seal in a movie called American Made means bringing Cruise’s baggage into the part. Bringing that feeling of overdone or overexposed or whatever it is that Tom Cruise can’t quite shake, to the part. And it’s the best decision the producers could have made for American Made.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who, in 1978 is flying the east coast and taking advantage of his route to bring Cuban cigars home for some money on the side. One day, out of the blue, Barry is approached by “Schafer” (Domnhall Gleason), who tells Barry he’s CIA, that he knows Barry is running cigars, and offers him an “opportunity” to serve the US Government by flying around Central America taking pictures of militants, radicals, and whosever the government wants intel on. Barry does these runs for the government, but he also takes the opportunity to start smuggling cocaine into the US. Thus, he works for the CIA and the drug cartels.
Barry is the hero of American Made, but this Barry Seal guy, he’s no hero. Even if sometimes Liman makes him look like one. A good guy, a decent guy. Sometimes you might even wonder, is he really that bad? But then, you remember, oh yeah, he is. But according to the universe of American Made, so is everyone else.
From the government, to the cartels, to the dupes who are used by both, everyone is somewhere between decent guy in a tough situation and terrible person that will lead to the deaths of way too many people. American Made sees very little daylight in between Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and US general Oliver North (Robert Farrior). Everyone’s pretty much screwing everyone else, be it their brother-in-law, their president, or entire nations who are caught in the midst of a global Cold War.
Doug Liman (Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs Smith), a talented and flashy director of entertaining movies, turns American Made into a foil for the US in it’s current state of putrescence: a stylish, fun, fast-paced comedic action movie, about terrible people, doing terrible things, to better their own lives and fuck off the rest.
The moral compass of American Made points nowhere. There are no moral choices to make, and as a result, no one makes them. The US government is hapless and feckless, trying everything to solve the communist threat in Central America through the efforts of an equally hapless pilot they have no loyalty to. They demonstrate over and over that they know nothing about the threat or how to solve it, only that they need Seal to do the flying. The cartels are just the same: strong and violent, yes, but petty and poorly managed. And they too are dependent on Seal to do the flying.
Liman’s direction is both shallow and entertaining. There’s flashy camera work and stylized colors and textures. There’s fun fonts and Tom Cruise in tight outfits flashing a mile-wide smile that just gets you even as you know you can’t escape the Tom Cruise of it all. Liman is fascinated by the conflicts of the ’80s and how poorly the US managed them, and he even somehow provides actual educational value re: training contras, US involvement in Nicaragua, etc (it’s a true story, but in keeping with the theme of the movie, offers plenty of alternative facts).
Seal is the perfect subject for American Made: a man who has one skill, and uses that skill to attain obscene levels of illegally attained wealth, while simultaneously serving his country by providing some of the most detailed and valuable intel the CIA has ever seen.