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Non-Review Review: American Made

“Sh!t gets really crazy from here,” promises Barry Seal at one point in American Made, as this true story takes another sharp escalation.

Unfortunately, American Made never quite lives up to that promise. Starring Tom Cruise and directed by Doug Liman, American Made is never less than charming and endearing, but it also feels overly familiar. American Made plays like a decidedly old-fashioned crime biography film, one that feels appropriate following the cheekily time-warped production logos that introduce the film. Gary Spinelli’s script feels almost retro in the way that it very neatly and very efficiently fits the life of Barry Seal to the familiar crime movie template.

He can handle the truth.

American Made is a well-made film, one anchored in Tom Cruise’s star power charisma and Doug Liman’s competent direction. It is a film with a clear narrative arc and a very sturdy storytelling structure. American Made hints every beat in a very efficient manner, dividing its time very effectively between charming episodic details and its broader overarching themes. The film never loses track of itself, even if it feels like most of the characters around Barry Seal and his CIA handler “Schaffer” never feel particularly alive.

However, there is a something almost disappointing in this efficiency. American Made is too tightly constructed to ever let itself embrace the absurdity of its central narrative. “Sh!t” is too carefully managed to ever get “really crazy.”

Pilot error.

American Made certainly has an interesting hook. It is the biography of infamous smuggler Barry Seal, a man who seems to have run deliveries for just about every disreputable organisation on the planet. “When it absolutely has to be there overnight,” jokes cocaine kingpin Jorge Ochoa early in the film, riffing on the slogan of the delivery company FedEx. However, the line is more than just a knowing joke, it is a statement of purpose.

Writer Gary Spinelli seems to imagine American Made as a criminal political epic, Scarface by way of Forrest Gump. Barry Seal pointedly and repeatedly brushes shoulders with some of the most famous and influential figures of the late twentieth century, delivering pay-offs to Manuel Noriega and sitting across the table from Oliver North. Although Seal never gets to share the room with Ronald Reagan, his path does directly cross with two future presidents of the United States.

Courting controversy.

It makes sense. American Made presents Barry Seal’s smuggling operation as the very embodiment of American capitalism. Schaffer initially argues that Seal is helping to sell democracy abroad, reducing the American dream to a commodity that can be traded and stolen across borders. As the film progresses, the deals get more complex and the products get less savory. Seal might argue that he is exporting democracy, but he is really just moving guns and drugs and people.

American Made pays particular attention to the complexities of Seal’s transactions. AK-47s that were manufactured by the Soviets for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, seized by the Israels and traded to the Americans, make their way to the Contras. Even that is not the end of the line, as Seal discovers that the Contras don’t want the weapons, but want to sell them on to Panama. American Made explains these chains of deals through helpful diagrams.

Dealing with all of his client Manuel-ly.

At the same time, the film mines considerable comedy from scenes of Seal trying to manage and dispose of his cash. There are extended sequences of Seal trying to bury money in the back yard, only to unearth bags he’d already hidden there. Cupboards overflow with money. Relatives with poor judgment just find large bundles of cash lying around. However, this attention to detail serves an important purpose. American Made is ultimately about sheer economics. Even as Seal faces the forces of justice, his primary concern is allowing his family to keep some wealth.

This is all very interesting, and very well conveyed. Liman is a director who understands the importance of clear visual storytelling, of communicating important information to the audience. A lesser director would have struggled to effectively convey the time-travel action dynamics of The Edge of Tomorrow, but Liman ensured that the most confusing aspect of the film was its title. Here, Liman very cleverly and very insightfully guides the audience’s eye and attention, both in terms of the mechanics of each individual scheme and the film as a whole.

Flight of fancy.

Tom Cruise is suitably charming as Barry Seal, who seems almost like a canny and ruthless version of Forrect Gump namedropping his way across the American Century. Cruise anchors the film. As the times change and as the details of the operation shift, Cruise provides a rock-solid foundation for the film. As fashions change, Cruise never quite sheds his star persona. The length of Seal’s sideburns might change from era to era, but he is always Tom Cruise. In a film that covers as much ground as American Made, there is something reassuring in that.

At the same time, American Made is too clean and too efficient to work as well as it might. The film feels very much like historical criminal biography from the eighties or nineties, the kinds of films that were popularised by the success of GoodFellas and Casino. This is movie that covers a considerable chunk of time, and which tries to offer the audience a clear all-encompassing picture of the madness at its core. It is very neatly structured, moving in a predictable manner through familiar plot beats.

Charged conversation.

As soon as Caleb Landry Jones is introduced as Seal’s brother-in-law “J.B.”, the audience knows exactly how his character arc will unfold. Barry’s relationship with his wife Lucy is exactly what the audience expects in a film like this. Even the plot and character arcs that unfold along the very edge of the finished film, such as the thread involving Sheriff Downing, follow a familiar pattern. The character might feel squeezed off-screen by everything else happening, but the audience can intuit his arc from what is shown.

As much as Seal teases the absurdity of the story, American Made never quite embraces that ridiculousness. There are a few nodes here and there, with some nice animated exposition and some effective montages and a framing device that is intended to evoke the texture of VHS; however, these are just stylistic quirks in a very conventional story. When Martin Scorsese decided to revisit his own fascination with unchecked American capitalism in Wolf of Wall Street, he understood that he had to push beyond the stylistic boundaries he has established in GoodFellas.

Plane as day.

American Made is as efficiently engineered and as carefully calibrated as any of those planes flown by Seal over the course of the film. However, it lacks the adventurousness and ambition of the man flying them.

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