American Made

Year: 2017
Production Co: Cross Creek Productions
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke

After seeing this movie coming and going with barely a whimper, and having only been exposed to one single review which dismissed it just another movie coasting on Tom Cruise's megawatt smile and aviator shades, I nearly bypassed it altogether. Assuming it had been a flop, I was completely ready to compare it to another recent star vehicle that proved the movie star era was behind us, Red Sparrow. In fact neither are true. American Made earned $134m worldwide off a production budget of $50m, and it was a rollicking yarn with a real sense of its own style.

It's also the second time I've seen Barry Seal depicted on screen – the first was in the Netflix series Narcos – but if you know the true story you'll know how ripe it is for Hollywood dramatisation.

The true aspects of Barry Seal's story that make it into this movie intact are him leaving his job as a commercial pilot to smuggle small quantities of drugs using light planes. That led him to Pablo Escobar's business interests where he became a regular cocaine runner into the US via a small Arkansas airfield (Mena, the working title of the film during production). Business boomed, he expanded dramatically, and when he was arrested on one of his runs, the DEA approached him quietly and offered to help reduce his charges if he became an informant on the Central American drug trade for the US government.

It put him right in the quagmire of Escobar's Medellin cartel, the Nicaraguan mess, the Sandinistas and the Contras, eventually leading right up to the Oliver North scandal. Working in between (and for) two very dangerous participants in the drug wars, Seal's days were well and truly numbered no matter how much of a balance he tried to strike.

The movie takes that kernel of truth and spins a wild tale out of it, the kind Hollywood both appreciates and does well. There are scenes of death-defying flying in small aircraft stuffed full with guns and drugs (Cruise does all his own flying), the debauchery and head-spinning excess of high times, with so many bags of cash hidden round the Seal household and buried in the backyard they run out of places to put it, let alone things to buy with it. To lend further to the air of fantasy, one comic scene depicts Seal waiting for a meeting at the White House and chatting to a young George W Bush about being in the Air National Guard.

On the surface – and by the above description – it looks like a dozen other rise and fall dramas about the glittering surface and the dank underbelly of the American dream. But both director Doug Liman and star Cruise do interesting things with what might otherwise have been a pretty mundane script.

For one thing, Liman and his cinematographer C̩sar Charlone aren't thinking cinematically the whole time. The flying scenes have an appropriate sense of scope, but at times Рespecially while in cramped cockpits Рthere's an almost fish-eye lens and handheld outlook going on, like a single cameraman is doing a documentary about the real events. It doesn't exactly amp up the tension (consciously at least), but it gives the movie a sense of movement and visual language that's all its own.

And where the review I read merely chalked it up to another Cruise-in-shades role, he actually sinks his teeth in, if only a little bit. Sure he's svelte, megastar-handsome and constantly wears those three quarter length shirts he loves, but the character's from Louisiana, and you notice Cruise letting a bit of a yokel accent creep in, throwing in the odd 'ma'am' or 'yessir' to sell it the rest of the way.

It's not going to change the world but it's fun, and higher than average fun at that.

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