Many films start off with some sort of brief up-tempo sequence – a high-energy bit to draw in the audience and get them involved before slowing the movie down to what will become its regular pace. Doug Liman’s “American Made” doesn’t do that. It starts off high energy and then runs for the remainder of the time at that same speed. In this case, it makes for a stylish movie, but also one that is, in the end, relatively empty.
“American Made” is the tale of one off-the-books CIA operative, Barry Seal, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, with Tom Cruise in the lead role. It is a perfect fit for Cruise who so regularly floods the screen with his charisma and charm. Somehow, the actor has maintained that puckish, teenage-like grin for decades and it is in full effect here as Seal wends his way through the minefield that is working with groups as diverse as the CIA, DEA, Medellín Cartel, Nicaraguan freedom fighters, and Manuel Noriega.
A former TWA pilot, Seal runs drugs, guns, and people from one part of the western hemisphere to another, with his only contact at the CIA, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), ready to help or disavow him as is necessary in any given moment. Seal, a family man, has to keep all this (as best as he can) from his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), and everyone else, something that proves impossible as his wealth grows.
To put it simply, “American Made” is dizzying. Liman and Cruise get the viewer completely wrapped up in the world of this man who, at best, operates on the margins of the law. We pull for him and laugh as he meets folks like Pablo Escobar and Ollie North or explains to agents from multiple federal agencies all at once just how he isn’t going to be going to jail for what he’s doing.
This is a film that lives on Cruise’s persona and non-stop enthusiasm (even if Seal is less than enthusiastic at moments). It is a brash performance in a brash movie, one which gives an over-the-top accounting of events, always couching them in the notion that this is “based on a true story.”
The downside of all this is that because “American Made” never pauses to catch its breath, it winds up not offering very much nuance. Gleeson makes the little insight we get into Schafer fascinating, but there is only that little bit of insight. Purposefully, the audience is kept off balance trying to figure out how much Schafer is freelancing this and how much has been sanctioned by the FBI. However, because everyone in the audience knows where the film is heading, not offering up the insight into why any of it is happening removes something essential from the proceedings.
Similarly, figuring out why Seal goes down this path is a fruitless endeavor. The only answers provided are that he is a thrill-seeker and wants the money. While that surface answer may be enough until his first (or second) near death experience, as the film progresses the audience needs more and the more never comes.
Even so, Cruise and Liman largely make it work, with the filming and direction almost as playful as Cruise himself. Handheld shots in the movie actually manage to add to the proceedings rather than detract, fitting into Seal’s seat-of-the-pants ethos and never taking away from the action on screen itself.
It is big, loud, and unapologetic, with some of the best moments occurring with Cruise in the cockpit of a plane (or getting out of it). And, while we have seen the actor in such a position before, there are no shades of Maverick here, except maybe once on a close fly-by.
The energy throughout this whole endeavor is simply wonderful, and the notion that through the acting, filming, and editing everyone involved is able to keep it going for nearly two full hours is hugely impressive. And yet, when one does get up, leave the theater, and think about what they’ve seen, it all feels a little hollow with a few too many pieces that go nowhere or are never explained in satisfying fashion.
photo credit: Universal Studios