American Made has got to be one of the most perverse films I’ve seen this year, and I mean it as a positive. That’s “perverse,” not “perverted,” by the way. “Perverse” in the way that what we’re watching is meant to be a man’s illicit life, yet we’re laughing savagely at it. Those of you familiar with the story of Barry Seal may know the facts, but when you see it retold with the dashing directorial skills of Doug Liman, a snappy script by Gary Spinelli, and Tom Cruise firing on all thrusters, it’s impossible not to get irrevocably swept away.
How, you might asking yourself, is it even remotely possible to find any joy in the sad tale of an airline pilot-turned-counterintelligence agent-turned-smuggler whose story made the papers 30 years ago? It’s because of a very black, gallows-type humor which packs the film like the hundreds of kilos of cocaine Seal stuffs into his plane on a weekly basis. Spinelli’s palimpsest keeps Seal’s life relatively consequence-free so we can focus on the absurdity of each situation CIA handler Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) sends his way.
Seal tumbles down the rabbit hole into a world of clandestine operations, drug cartels, freedom fighters – hell, even the Sandinistas and the Contras are thrown in there. As “the Gringo who always delivers,” Cruise sports a light Southern drawl and his usual self-sure charisma, giving Seal a persona vacillating between a good ol’ boy, family man and used car salesman. We hang on his every word, whether he’s narrating in ‘80s video camera confessionals, facing down a cartel head who’s just said “Kill the Gringo!”, or telling his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) why he’s carrying a satchel full of thousand-dollar packets.
Christophe Beck’s score and the nearly era-appropriate pop soundtrack (The Heavy’s “What Makes a Good Man?” shows up out of nowhere in a film set in the 1980s) feature a driving, heavily percussive quality, almost as if to emulate a ticking clock in the background. This nearly-subliminal notion – coupled with repeated shots of Seal’s turquoise-banded watch – lurks in the background as Seal goes quickly from role to role, poor one minute and rich the next, all aided by Schafer’s gung-ho machinations.
Gleeson is utter fun to watch as he struts darkly through the film, appearing to Seal as the well-dressed, confident man of many plans. The unbridled joy with which he encourages Seal to take another punch for his country is comical, especially when you see he’s just another cubicle-dweller like the rest of America. And when things go south for Seal, it’s a shock as Gleeson makes his character pivot sharply, almost becoming the Devil in a sportcoat with how evil he appears.
Liman keeps things moving fast and light, not giving us too much time to dwell in any given scene; we’re made to feel the whirlwind Seal’s life becomes. We’re zoomed from Baton Rouge to Nicaragua to Mena, Arkansas to Colombia and all points in between at near-lightspeed, but we definitely also feel the pressure piling up like the money Seal’s stacked in his various closets.
Cruise gifts this film with one of his best performances I’ve seen to date. He shies away from the tics which we’ve come to expect when he’s on screen and creates a lasting image of a man figuratively dancing away from a gun pointed at his head. Doesn’t matter that it’s pointed at him, and it doesn’t matter that it’ll go off eventually, but he’s gonna have fun with it anyway. Sure, we all know it’s Tom Cruise we’re watching, but Liman’s direction forces him to carve out a different path for his role here. His version of Seal is not at all a grounded character; he’s cocksure, but he doesn’t have the heart to back up his arrogance.
There’s a slam-bang joie de vivre about American Made which makes us feel like we’re sitting in the co-pilot’s chair next to Seal as he rockets us back and forth across the border. It’s a similar feeling found in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, both being films fueled by pumping soundtracks and high-profile crime, with the lead character telling us exactly how his life got to be the way it is. Yes, it’s a highly-sensationalized version of events with certain times and figures being conflated for dramatic purposes, but it’s a hell of a fun way to dip your toes into a little bit of the darkness found in America.