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American Made

I’m calling it the “Dirty Stinking Rich” subgenre.

In the wake of the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and a growing distaste for how the wealthy and powerful keep getting away with fucking us over, we’ve had a lot of “Dirty Stinking Rich” movies. I’m specifically referring to films that depict the rise (and fall) of sleazy protagonists who get to be obscenely wealthy through illegal and/or unethical means. More specifically, these are films made to be deliberately crude and/or provocative, serving as a darkly comical satire of the immoral One Percent and how the American Dream has become a tasteless joke. Quite often, they’re (loosely) based on a true story. Perhaps most importantly, there has to be at least one montage of the protagonists pressed against gorgeous women, high on mass amounts of drugs and alcohol, partying in opulent cars and houses, etc., so that we can vicariously live through them even as we hate their guts.

The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most definitive example. But we’ve also got Pain and Gain, War Dogs, and The Big Short as other notable entries. And here’s another one.

American Made is loosely based on a true story, set against the backdrop of 1979 and the early ’80s. To set the stage, this is when the Soviets were supporting insurgencies in Central America. This naturally caught the interest of the States up north, prompting a proxy war between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. Problem: The notion of sending troops down there sounded uncomfortably similar to the Vietnam fiasco, and Congress was dead-set against another war. Thusly, the CIA was tasked with figuring out how to keep the Commies off our doorstep without anyone knowing about it. Enter Barry Seal.

It’s not entirely clear when TWA pilot Barry Seal started working with the CIA (Go figure, right?), but in the movie, he’s caught smuggling contraband cigars out of Cuba. So he’s more or less blackmailed into quitting his job with the CIA and flying with an independent shell company to take recon photos of insurgents in Central America. Incidentally, this puts him in direct contact with the nascent Manuel Noriega.

Long story short (too late!), a young up-and-coming businessman named Pablo Escobar catches wind of Seal’s operations and, uh… *ahem* convinces him to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.A. And things get crazier from there.

As the plot unfolds, Seal is flying around drugs, guns, top-secret intel, you name it. For a huge stretch of time, he’s even flying huge groups of Contra soldiers up to the States for training. And all the while, he’s simultaneously taking money from the CIA, the White House, and all the most dangerous drug lords in the Western Hemisphere. He seriously ends up with more money than he can spend, with cash literally bursting out of his walls.

This naturally catches the attention of law enforcement, who has no idea about all the covert stuff Seal is doing for his nation (and others). Which means that he has to fend off the DEA, the FBI, ATF, FAA, DMV, FCC and every other acronym out there. Not to mention the CIA and Seal’s drug lord friends, any one of which could hang him out to dry at any time for any reason.

It’s a life story so crazy, only Tom Cruise could star in it.

This is seriously a unique brand of crazy that fits perfectly into Cruise’s wheelhouse. Too perfectly, in fact. I don’t know if or when we’re ever going to see Cruise dissolve into a role again, such that we can focus on the character instead of the nutjob with one of the most bankable faces in modern cinema, but that day is not today. He’s entertaining, to be sure — a whole lot of fun to watch. But the simple fact is that we’re watching yet another Tom Cruise vehicle and not a Tom Cruise performance. Still, he at least holds the film together, which is more than I can say for the rest of the cast.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Seal’s contact with the CIA, and I’m sorry to say that he was pitifully miscast. I mean, I get the idea of casting someone inconspicuous as the covert operative, but the face of the CIA should be someone who could potentially pose a serious threat if the occasion called for it. There’s an edge to this job that Gleeson — for all his talent and charm — simply doesn’t have.

A similar case is Seal’s wife, played by Sarah Wright as our latest winner of the “Relatively Unknown Beautiful Actress Gets to Play a Female Lead Opposite Tom Cruise” sweepstakes. I love that this is a thing and it’s great that Cruise insists on putting so much effort into finding strong female talent instead of casting the 20-something du jour to play his romantic lead. Unfortunately, on the scale of Cruise’s other recent female costars, Wright is a lot closer to Annabelle Wallis than Rebecca Ferguson. While Wright certainly looks the part, she doesn’t have the material or the talent to hold the screen against Cruise. She only registers as a placeholder when the potential was there for so much more.

We’ve also got Caleb Landry Jones playing firmly within type as the scumbag brother-in-law who threatens to ruin everything, and Jesse Plemons as the local sheriff who does just short of fuck-all. And nobody else in the supporting cast is even worth a mention. For better or worse, this is all Tom Cruise’s show. Well, him and Doug Liman.

It’s little wonder that Liman and Cruise work well together (see: Edge of Tomorrow. No, seriously, watch it.) But of course Liman is probably still best known for his work on the Jason Bourne series and its trademark use of handheld photography. And sadly, it’s a little shaky here (so to speak). For every gorgeous panoramic shot of some Central American city, there’s a shot in which the actors are barely visible in the frame. Even so, Liman deserves a ton of credit for helping us to straighten out the complicated geopolitical events and Seal’s convoluted trafficking schemes. That is seriously no mean feat.

But all of this comes secondary to my single biggest gripe with this film, and it’s a problem sadly too common with other “Dirty Stinking Rich” movies: Stakes and consequences. Yes, the movie focuses tightly on our main character, with the massive amounts of money and the life-or-death stakes he faces through every second of every day. But sadly, the movie keeps such a heavy focus on its main character that the greater stakes and consequences for the world at large are completely overlooked.

Barry talks about how he helped build the largest drug cartel in the hemisphere, but he talks about it in the context of “Isn’t it a crazy story?”, and never in the context of “How many lives did I destroy?” In fact, never once does anybody hold him responsible for all the innocent people who lost their lives and their livelihoods as a direct result of the wars he perpetuated and the drugs he smuggled in. So many law enforcement agencies are after Seal, but there’s no voice given to precisely why he may need to be stopped. It’s presented as comical how Barry has more cash than he can possibly hope to hide or smuggle, and it’s never mentioned even once that every last dollar bill is soaked in blood.

As presented in the film, Barry is simply a man who gets in over his head because he never says no. Because he literally can’t say no. He spends so much time trying to stay one step ahead and enjoy his life while he can that there’s really no time to even dwell on his conscience. Yes, that makes for a fast-paced movie that’s great fun to sit through, but it doesn’t make for a particularly insightful or relevant movie. The best we get is a shot of Nancy Reagan telling us “Just Say No” juxtaposed with Americans backing Contras with drug money. Amusing and darkly ironic, but that’s not exactly going for the jugular.

I want to be clear that American Made is a perfectly enjoyable film. It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, the action is good, and Tom Cruise is a blast to watch. But it could have been so much more. There was definitely room here for a stronger supporting cast and a deeper examination of the story, with more intelligent insights regarding the consequences of Seal’s actions and how this story is relevant today.

As it is, this is an ideal movie for early October: Not quite fun enough to be a summer blockbuster and not quite smart enough to be an awards contender.

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