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While he is not everyone’s cup of tea, Tom Cruise is a movie star of a type that we do not see on screen with much regularity anymore. One can argue about the films he chooses to make (but I liked The Mummy) and one can, correctly, critique his religious choices, but it is hard to argue that Cruise is not movie star. He may not be able to open movies on the strength of his name alone anymore, but, once you come to a Tom Cruise movie, you are more likely to be entertained than not.
Cruise’s star talents are on full display in American Made which tells the (almost) true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who made a personal fortune spying for the CIA, running drugs for the Medellin Cartel and supplying weapons and a training location for the Contras. Only someone with ridiculous self confidence and a massive ego could pull of the schemes that Seal kept afloat a Cruise, in his best performance in years, does a wonderful job of conveying a kinetic recklessness in Seal. He carries the film, is in almost every scene of it, and makes the character more appealing than he likely was in real life.
Cruise relies on very few of his tropes here. Seal has no father issues, is not a superhuman action star and does not seem to do much well except flying. It is the flying that first catches the eye of the CIA when Seal is recruited for a series of spy missions taking photos of Central American hot spots from the air. It was a simply step, made completely palatable in Cruise’s performance, to segue from these missions to picking up and dropping off cocaine for the Cartel.
How Seal became a part of training and arming the Contras is another crazy matter entirely.
Cruise, as is his wont right now, carries the film and it suffers when he is not on screen. He is surrounded by capable actors, the only two of whom who make much of an impression are Sarah Wright and Dohmnall Gleeson. Wright wrings some humor and joy out of a fairly narrowly written role as Lucy Seal, Barry’s all too trusting wife. She is able to hold her own with Cruise and the ample chemistry they show might owe to the fact that they are a couple in real life. Gleeson is also very good in a one-note role as Schafer, Seal’s CIA contact. What is amazing about Gleeson is how different he is in each-and-every film in which he appears. It is truly hard to recognize him from one film to the next and he is always worth watching.
Other characters populate the film, but I found myself wishing more had been done with them, especially the pilots Seal recruits to help him juggle his schemes.
But it is Cruise’s movie and he really does deliver a fine performance here. He is engaging and funny, but smart enough to know his character has a dark side or at least a broken moral compass. Though Seal is often smiling, there is something empty behind that smile, something sad. Cruise’s Seal is no one’s hero. He is not even much of Robin Hood like anti-hero. He was a guy in the right place at a series of wrong times and is barely keeping all the balls in the air. Cruise masterfully plays the confusion that Seal felt when he realized the money was not enough to make him happy.
The movie, as enjoyable as it was, does not do enough to indicate just how high the stakes are, right up until the conclusion. People live and people die. Lives are changed. Many are hurt but director Doug Liman is more than happy to let his star carry the action without suffering many consequences of his choices. This is a good decision for the movie – because Cruise is the best thing in it – but it hurts what might have been a more powerful exploration of the time in which it takes place. Name dropping Bill Clinton, including George W. Bush and Oliver North as characters and wrapping the whole thing up with real news footage of the time illustrates what might have been. Cruise is very much worth the price of admission, but American Made could have been an even better movie.
AMERICAN MADE receives FOUR and KILOS OF COCAINE out of a possible FIVE.