Barry Seal was an incredibly fascinating figure from American crime history – he perhaps can be one of the few people where it’s accurate to say he did everything and worked for everybody. After getting his pilot license at a very young 16 years old he became a drug smuggler for the Medellin cartel. After his subsequent arrest he was then used by the CIA as an informant to bring down drug dealers in Latin America, leading him to be a double agent for both the CIA and the drug smugglers before his eventual assassination by members of the Medellin in 1986. It’s a fascinating story to tell and though Seal has been portrayed in two movies prior (Dennis Hopper in the docudrama Doublecrossed and a brief appearance by Michael Paré in The Infiltrator) American Made is the first big biopic about the man’s life.
And it’s a suitably grand picture for the insane life that Seal led – we see the movie go all the way from the point in which Seal (played by Tom Cruise) is recruited by CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to spy upon Communist insurgencies in Latin America. In an attempt to make more money Seal decides to work for Pablo Escabar and his crew in addition to the CIA, smuggling drugs into the United States thanks to his ace piloting skills. This leads to a glorious escalation as Seal places his hands in multiple pies, helping the CIA, the DEA, Escabar and eventually the White House out with smuggling, and begins to make ridiculous amounts of money.
The film juggles a lot of material – 8 years’ worth of real life events in a little under two hours – but it does it so deftly that you’ll hardly notice. The film uses a lot of imaginative ways to engage the audience with a lot of the somewhat heavy political themes going on throughout the film; Barry often tells the audience about events that happened via video recordings of himself explaining everything taken quite a while after his main escapades (and a few months before he got shot), there are freeze frames to explain the actions of certain characters and events and in a few particularly memorable instances there are crude little cartoons to explain conflicts in the Cold War as well as flight paths that Barry and the crew he subsequently hires take. Director Doug Liman really pulls out the stops with American Made as he’s able to weave all of these events together to create a movie that barely stops for breath and continuously keeps you excited, and these mentioned ways really show his creativity. His direction for the more action-oriented scenes are also exciting to watch; there’s not a whole load of action but when it does occur it’s splendid to watch, notably in a scene where Seal basically crash lands a plane in a suburb in order to evade United States border patrol guards. These scenes are greatly enjoyable to watch and show how skilled Liman is at directing such high kinetic moments in his films.
The films writing also helps it soar along. The dialogue in American Made is really well done; though a good chunk of it is exposition it never feels too clunky, partly thanks to its marriage to the great direction and partly because all the information being given to you is so interesting that it leaves you deeply invested with the action going on. There’s also a lot of humour in the dialogue that’s incredibly funny, with many ridiculous one-liners and nods about how crazy all the things that are going on in the film are; this is easily a better comedy than most mainstream released comedy films these days. The work of the actors in the film also propel it upwards, especially Tom Cruise. This is a huge step up from his last film, The Mummy, as he plays Seal with a ridiculous amount of charisma which makes him a complete joy to watch all the way through. The rest of the cast, including Sarah Wright as Seal’s wife Lucy and Meth Damon as a sheriff in the town of Mena where Barry and his family move to, don’t have a huge amount to do but all play their parts well enough. The most entertaining member of the supporting cast has to be Caleb Landry Jones as Barry’s idiotic redneck brother in law who begins to put the wheels in motion for getting Barry into trouble with the law – though his screentime is brief he makes the most of it and is very enjoyable.
American Made is a very fun high-octane ride into the life of a very enthralling individual. This is a film that knows that its content – and by extension the events that happened in real life – is absolutely ridiculous and therefore it goes for broke in how mental it is overall; this makes American Made is all the better for knowing just how crazy it is. It keeps you thoroughly entertained and gripped even though there’s a lot of information to take in and not as much action as you may expect and Cruise is on top form as Barry Seal, whilst Liman shows just how strong a director he is with his creative juices clearly flowing on full blast with this one. Overall this leads to a film that’s an absolute ball to watch and a strong point in the careers of Cruise and Liman.
American Made – directed by Doug Liman, written by Gary Spinelli, produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Doug Davison, Brian Oliver, Kim Roth and Tyler Thompson, starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays and Jesse Plemons. An Imagine Entertainment/Cross Creek Pictures production, a Universal Pictures film
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