Three-and-a-half out of Five
If you’re looking to score some law-breaking excitement with two-timing characters, then “American Made” is made for you.
Just when Barry Seal’s (Tom Cruise) life as an airline pilot starts to bore him, the CIA offers him a job as a reconnaissance pilot. During one of his many CIA-sanctioned jobs, he gets an offer he can’t refuse — working for Central American cartels run by narco-terrorists like Pablo Escobar, which kicks his thrill-seeking life into overdrive. Throughout the film, he juggles working for the U.S. government with various cartel jobs, keeping both oblivious because if one of them finds out, he’s toast.
Now Seal keeps busy running guns, drugs and money south of the border and getting paid so much money he has to bury it in the backyard. Audiences begin to wonder how long Seal can keep up with his two lives and what will happen if his employers catch on.
What makes “American Made” successful is its main character, Seal. Everyone from Uncle Sam to Colombian drug lords want him to pilot for them because he’s the best. He knows planes, thinks outside the box and takes risks.
This also makes Seal’s set-up work. He knows how both sides operate, so he manipulates both to his advantage (while avoiding death and imprisonment). He creates a perfect system of running goods that doesn’t overlap. When confronted with problems, he finds ingenious, unpredictable solutions, no matter what the situation.
Cruise portrays these aspects perfectly. Seal’s not the sophisticated special agent Cruise often plays. He’s not a seasoned fighter with fancy gadgets. He’s just a good pilot and a shrewd businessman, a normal guy who is getting in way over his head, which makes him relatable.
The film excellently balances contradictions. Several humorous moments and also scenes of drug/gun trade violence are managed without being too jarring to the audience.
Seal himself is an enigma. Is he a good guy working for the bad guys or vice versa? Is he a greedy business man taking more money than he knows what to do with, or simply trying to cover his tracks to stay alive? These questions are left to the audience to answer.
With all Seal’s wheeling and dealing, it would be easy for the audience to get lost. But the script writers take care of the audience, filling in gaps with subtitles, animation, newsreels and voiceovers from Seal and helping illuminate the American and global politics of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the story unfolds.
With a narrative and character as complicated as this one, it would be easy for this film to crash and burn. Rather than getting weighed down by the heavy themes, the film takes the subject matter seriously but also handles it lightly. Add to that an outstanding character and performance, and “American Made” takes off and soars.
Brewster is a graduate of Lewiston High School and Lewis-Clark State College and has a master’s degree in film and television studies from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org