Guns, drugs, money, proxy wars, and the American Dream
Set against the backdrop of the Iran-Contra Affair in the ‘70s and ‘80s, American Made follows the story of the late, real-life pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise). After graduating from the air force academy, the gifted Seal makes a living as a pilot in the Trans World Airlines fleet. Yet, even with swoon-worthy uniforms and a generous salary to support his family, the life of a commercial pilot does not satisfy Seal’s need for excitement in his life. Starved of adrenaline, he even goes as far as creating fake “turbulence” during a flight just to get a good laugh.
One day, a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhall Gleeson), contacts him and asks him to perform undercover photographing missions for the CIA, flying over South America in a small plane equipped with powerful cameras. Mission follows mission for Seal; he is soon dispatched to act as a gun and money courier for a Panamanian general. Things get even more out of hand when Seals gets recruited as a transporter by Pablo Escobar and the rising Medellin Cartel, who are struggling to smuggle their products from Colombia to the States. In the course of the film, one would clearly see Seal’s transition from stable, run-of-the-mill commercial pilot to CIA spy and cartel courier through a series of episodic events expertly performed by Tom Cruise.
Directors Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli have crafted a witty and satirical black comedy, turning a twisted government scandal into a funny, entertaining action movie. The bold, bright colors – featuring an abundance of yellow, red, and pink – of each frame set the tone of the film’s comic-book reportage. The director uses the videotapes that Seal left behind to create a Deadpool-esque narrative, constantly breaking the fourth wall and using the commentary to drive the story forward. This method of storytelling is not unheard-of, but it effectively tells the historical context as well as the fiction in an engaging manner. On top of that, the many airplane scenes were actually shot in air with Cruise in the cockpit, who almost always performs his own stunts, making the directing even more natural.
Donning bell bottoms and aviator glasses, Barry Seal’s charming persona oddly makes him a likable anti-hero. As he is thrown into a world of drug-dealing, arms-carrying, and spying, this once ordinary pilot takes on missions one after the other for two simple reasons: excitement and money. Reminiscent of “American Hustle,” a film with similar themes of wealth and the American dream, American Made brilliantly narrates the ludicrous events of politics and covert operations in the 1980s, with Seal at the center of it all.In both movies, you see small-time criminals reaping benefits from other people’s ignorance in a chaotic era when the incentives of government officials and criminals in this time period become blurred. Thus came Barry Seal, your friendly-neighborhood drug-dealer millionaire with his even stranger yet endlessly supportive wife, his fierce and loving partner-in-crime. When forced to move his family from their stable household to a dilapidated mountain-side home in Mena, Seal asks Lucy (Sarah Wright) to trust him, to which she replies with a big “Hell no!” Wright successfully portrays a fierce yet motherly companion to Cruise’s Seal, playing an important role in illustrating the pilot’s complex lifestyle as a caring father and drug-dealing millionaire. As the cash business starts running smoothly, the family paints its house pink, constructs a swimming pool, and revives the bank business in the small town. The Seal family is ironically saving the run-down town of Mena; Barry almost seems harmless. All the while, the familial bond and love proves to be so strong that the wife indulges in her husband’s riches, wearing large ‘70s sunglasses and neon-colored bathing suits and all, all the while staying loyal, loving, and caring. Strange it is, and the same goes for Seal. As Tom Cruise discusses in an interview with People, “It’s not every day you get to play a character who is a devoted husband and father and a drug runner, a CIA operative working for the DEA.”
Throughout the film, Liman makes sure to make you laugh. In fact, you are supposed to laugh at the crescendo of absurdity in Barry’s life, from his recorded tapes to his criminal shenanigans. One such episode is when Seal is forced to land his plane into a suburban garden, emerging from his vehicle covered from head to toe in cocaine and proceeds to steal a little kid’s bike (classic) to ride home. Liman expertly constructs a smooth sequence of frames, transitioning from an airplane speeding in the sky to its rocky landing to a ragged-looking Seal pedaling slowly on a tricycle; the scene’s cleverness lies in the unexpected coherence of sinister and innocence.The family becomes so wealthy that Lucy has to scold Barry, as he is reads a graphic novel about the infamous gangster Al Capone, for burying bags of cash in their backyard due to lack of storage, a ridiculous issue that the rest of us can hardly fathom. Most importantly, over the span of the 2 hours, members of the audience are on the edge of their seats waiting for Barry to get caught and punished severely. Yet, the irony ensues as the American government actually recruits him after arresting him for drug-transporting to be a White House informant and operative. Throughout this entire fortunate consequence, you can see the delighted confusion in the eyes of Barry, who himself is awed at his predicament. And when he gets charged as well as betraying his Colombian business partners, he receives a mere 1000 hours of community service, to which he hilariously asks, “Can I stay (in the courthouse)?” Everyone in the theater just hysterically laughed with him. Again, Liman reveals another brilliant dramatic irony: staying jail would be safer than traveling outside, where the the assassins would ultimately kill him.
In the end, Liman spotlights the dark humor of the film especially with near the movie’s finale with Seal’s dragged-out embracing of his death. Commuting everyday to and fro his community service, he is wholly prepared to die every time he turns on the ignition of his car, waiting for a bomb to go off. Tom Cruise’s expression of a carefree-looking stress in the midst of a cynical yet comical situation makes the sequence of scenes that much more amusing.
American Made is an American Dream satire that urges you to exclaim with clenched fists “The irony!” This comical depiction of the Iran-Contra crisis, complete with a funky soundtrack including Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” and Talking Head’s “Slippery People,” takes you on an action-packed and drug-dealing, million-dollar journey across the U.S.A and South America.