Movie Review: American Made

Most times, real life events are a canvass for a movie to paint its story using the vibrant or subdued colours of script, actors, and props. Sometimes, real life events are a canvass for an A-list actor to paint in vibrant colours his talent using real life events merely as a prop whilst his talent and star persona remain the focal point of the movie.

American Made belongs in the sometimes category. It pulled together the cold war eras of the late 70s and 80s, the covert counter-intelligence adventures (or misadventures) of the Reagan Administration, the Contras/Sandinista conflicts in South America intertwined with the rise of the infamous Medellin Cartel mixed with the true life story of a bored commercial pilot with TWA to create an elaborate architecture for Tom Cruise to redeem his A-list Hollywood movie star status after the awful misadventure that was The Mummy.

American Made is set in the late 70s and 80s captured in definitive period authenticity using a combination of green screen superimposition (seemingly), stock footage and deft set decoration and costuming.

Barry Seal (Tom cruise) is a pilot with TWA and apparently, he is bored with his (relatively non-regular) regular life as a commercial airline pilot. So, he injects a bit of excitement into his life smuggling banned Cuban cigars and the occasional triggering of artificial turbulence.

For an apparent adrenalin junkie, these were only temporary fixes. The ultimate excitement fix eventually comes in the form of a proposition from the CIA to fly reconnaissance sorties over South America with a small spy-camera enabled aircraft.

This enterprise supplies him all the excitement he needs to kiss his previously boring life goodbye. In the course of the montage of his flights, we are introduced to a certain corrupt Panamanian military General who goes by the name of Manuel Noriega. We are also introduced to a troika of drug barons who constitute the dreaded and infamous Medellin Cartel in Colombia.

His dalliance with the Cartel was as inevitable as it was forced. On the one hand, the CIA was nor forthcoming regarding his request for monetary compensation for his “patriotic” work on their behalf, and on the other hand, his activities had caught the attention of the Cartel who needed his skills and services to courier their drugs under the radar into the United States. Naturally, they made him an offer he could not refuse.

What ensues afterwards is familiar terrain in movie world. Seal’s neat little criminal enterprise blossoms into a lucrative cash machine. A montage of progression a la Scarface, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street and War Dogs takes us into Seal’s arrival in the big league. From a solo pilot enterprise, he advanced to a daredevil squad and was making money faster than he could come up with legitimate enterprises to launder them with.

However, unlike in other movies where newfound wealth unleashes debauchery in the protagonist, In American Made, Seal keeps it relatively controlled and grounded. The most debauchery he engages in is an entrance into the mile high club (introduced in slow-mo) with (surprise!) his spouse.

For Seal, it was obvious that his primary motivator was the excitement the criminal enterprise afforded him. His lack of a well-thought-out plan to manage the enormous wealth it yielded resonates with the admonition of his wife early on in the movie “what do you know about running a business?”

Billed as based on a true-life story, Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Bill Seal’s life blurred the lines so much so that one was understandably at a loss as to whether Cruise’s fictional representation of Seal’s factual life was not really Cruise’s fictional rendition of Cruise’s factual life.

Movie-lore has it that Tom Cruise is quite the adrenaline junkie himself and is partial to performing his movie stunts himself (subject to limitations spelt out in his insurance policies that insist on the use of a stunt double). In American Made, he even performs some of the aerial stunts himself with one crash sequence eerily evoking a tragic real-life crash during the shooting of the movie.

But beyond the stunts, it was in his portrayal of Bill Seal that Cruise usurped the entire energy of the movie making himself the focal point and rendered the true life story on which the movie is based and other cast members as mere background props.

Cruise embodied that boundless and frenetic burst of energy and boyish charm/ swagger that have characterized his most popular movies and characters. His intensity tempered by his playful boisterousness ensured that the movie constantly hovered between the boundaries of drama and comedy but with enough leanings towards the latter to temper any seriousness that might be ascribed to it given the seriousness of its real life political and criminal inspirations.

American Made took a serious political issue and gave it a not-so serious treatment but slathered it with enough Tom Cruise energy and charm to ensure that you remain sufficiently entertained from start to finish and distracted from the revelations of its political sub-theme. In the end, you come out sufficiently reminded why Tom Cruise is still such an enduring A-list movie star and less perturbed about the political chicanery of the Reagan years of American politics.

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