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​“American Made”: Cruise and Liman are in the money

by Greg Carlson | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Cinema | October 4th, 2017

The indefatigable Tom Cruise, still able to carry off youthful mock-insouciance at the age of 55, has plenty of fun as Barry Seal in “American Made.”

Seal, an American pilot who smuggled drugs for the Medellin Cartel and informed and testified for the D.E.A., probably wouldn’t have recognized much of his lived experience in Doug Liman’s entertaining fantasy, but the “true story” epigraphs affixed to feature films allow us to assign plausibility to the implausible.

Cruise’s Seal, an in-over-his-head entrepreneur seduced by a government handler into thinking he’s one of the good guys, uses his dazzling smile and firm handshake to hide his initial ignorance of all the deep shit that piles up around him.

Cruise, who previously worked with Liman on “Edge of Tomorrow,” elects not to push Seal’s rapid rise into the full-blown meltdown and fall usually accompanying the theme of wretched excess. Instead, he and Liman willfully turn their backs on any kind of moral hand-wringing or introspection. It’s a sound move, as Seal’s can-do pluck perfectly suits the Cruise template. Seal, like so many fiercely driven Cruise characters, desires motion, action, and a sense of purpose -- even if that purpose breaks a lengthy list of national and international laws.

“American Made” twists the rags-to-riches schematic of the Horatio Alger myth to its own agenda, acknowledging the perverse glee our fellow citizens take in accumulating wealth by any means necessary. Liman simultaneously lampoons and celebrates the obsession with money by constantly emphasizing Seal’s cash-only transactions.

As Seal completes an escalating number of successful smuggling trips, the duffel bags of greenbacks pile up in closets, hat boxes, suitcases, stables, and car trunks. Money is buried all over the backyard. In one scene, a suspicious F.B.I. agent rolls into sleepy Mena, Arkansas -- the town where Domhnall Gleeson’s mysterious agent Schafer has relocated Seal -- only to see an alarming number of banks, trusts, and savings and loans along the main drag.

In the hypermasculine, jacked-up universe of “American Made,” women unsurprisingly take a back seat to the parade of scenes in which men speak to other men. Sarah Wright, as Seal’s spouse Lucy, gets the most screen time of the trio of females who register at all. The always interesting Lola Kirke shows up as the wife of Jesse Plemons’ Sheriff Downing, and for a minute you wonder whether her role will develop into something of substance. It does not. Jayma Mays, as the state attorney interrupted by an unwelcome phone call from Governor Bill Clinton, appears in just a couple of scenes. None of the women share a conversation with another woman.

Screenwriter Gary Spinelli zips through a far too-good-to-be-true chronology that links Seal to U.S.-based Contra training camps, reconnaissance photos, Pablo Escobar, and drug- and gun-running routes the C.I.A. conveniently chooses to ignore.

Liman matches the pace with a fevered mix of great stock footage (much of it featuring Ronald Reagan), animation, freeze-frames, pop music, smeary VHS tape confessions, and other winking period details evocative of the early 1980s.

The cumulative effect of the movie has already been compared a number of times to “Goodfellas,” but “American Made” does not accomplish the same level of world-building verisimilitude on display in Scorsese’s classic.  

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