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Back in 1990 Martin Scorsese released Goodfellas and it is seen by many as one of the greatest gangster films ever made. Due to its success and rise-and-fall template many other films have attempted to copy – from Black Mass to War Dogs to Scorsese’s own Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Now Doug Liman and Tom Cruise team-up again after working on Edge of Tomorrow and they have had their own crack at a Scorsese style film with American Made.
Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a TWA pilot who is bored with his life when a CIA officer, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), offers him the chance to work for the agency. Seal jumps at the chance and takes reconnaissance photos of Communist rebels in Central America. Seal’s spy work ends up getting him notices by the Medellin Cartel and his links to both the CIA and the Cartel leads to Seal becoming an important figure at the start of the Iran-Contra Affair.
American Made is telling the story of a complex scheme that involved the CIA, Central American governments, rebels and drug cartels yet, it was told in a fun and engaging manner. American Made keeps the tone light and humorous and this was done thanks to Liman and Cruise. Liman embraced the ’70s and ’80s settings and nature of the story. The film starts with the Universal logo turning from the version used at the time before moving into the movie proper and he kept the brisk pace throughout due to its lighter tone. The film only turns into a more traditional crime film near the end with the level of peril becoming more heightened.
There is a playfulness with Liman’s direction. He is following the Scorsese template like the use of voiceover and montages but puts his own spin on them. There are animations and a map to give audiences a sense of the history and the geography. These moments have a Schoolhouse Rock feel – yet the framing device of voiceover is Seal recording video tapes so it leads to the question – did he do post-production just to add the animations? Also, the films need to be comedic undermined some scenes because it was based on a true story. The worst offender is when Seal is raided by a number of agencies at the same time without them being aware of each other’s operations. But it made be the case that it’s an incident that’s so ridiculous that it has to be true.
Seal is a thrill seeker – his first action in the film is turning off the autopilot on a commercial jet just to alleviate the boredom and then shouts in excitement when flying over Communist Rebels in Central American as they try to shoot him down. Cruise gets to play to his strengths – his hyper, excitable personality and his comedic timing. One of Cruise’s funniest moments is when his character meets the Contras for the second time and had a carrot and a stick – pornography and a baseball bat.
Cruise is surrounded by a solid cast – the most recognizable being Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones and Jayma Mays. Gleeson is pretty much the second biggest star in the film and he gave an energetic performance as Seal’s handler and a young CIA officer rising up the ranks who had an amazing ability to turn any scandal and disaster to his advantage. Mays is playing against type as a determined District Attorney – she acts differently to her famous role on Glee.
Sarah Wright played Lucy Seal, Barry Seal’s wife and she was in the Karen Hill role from Goodfellas, an ordinary woman who end ups enjoying the trappings of their partner’s criminal enterprises. Wright was fine in the role but her character suffered from using the f word too readily. When it comes to swearing, sometimes less is more.
It’s through Gary Spinelli’s screenplay where American Made was most like Goodfellas, following that film’s plot structure and points. Both films are crime rise and fall stories about someone from an ordinary background getting involved with extraordinary situations. Even some scenes in American Made are similar, like the FBI raiding the Seal house and the way the voice over describing the criminal enterprise – like when Seal and his pilots confront the DEA and how they counteracted them.
The espionage part of the film does give American Made a slight edge over other Scorsese-lite films. The CIA adds an extra dimension because it brings in elements of geopolitics and they act as a shield for Seal.
Spinelli’s screenplay is comprehensive about the Contra Affair and American Foreign Policy in Latin American during the early ’80s. As Seal says the Contra Affair was complex but he simplified it – the Cartel gave drugs to Contras which they sold and used the money to buy guns from the Americans – after Congress made giving weapons to the Contras illegal. Important figures like Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar and Colonel Oliver North make brief appearances as Seal describes what their role in the affair was. Even for audience members with a passing knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair, American Made is a rich experience.
The CIA storyline also ties into a running theme in Liman’s work – a distrust of governing institutions. The Bourne Identity was about a rogue black unit in the CIA, Fair Game was about the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame by the George W. Bush administration during the run up of to the Iraq War and even Edge of Tomorrow had a governmental element because Cruise’s superior officer forces him to fight on the front line. American Made showed the moral duplicity of the Reagan administration where publicly Nancy Reagan was leading the ‘Just Say No’ Campaign whilst the CIA were importing drugs into the country. Because of Cold War politics the CIA (under both Republicans and Democrats administrations) were willing to support horrible regimes and rebels if it meant preventing Communism getting a foothold. The CIA was responsible for messing up Latin America.
For a film that is telling a typical criminal rise-and-fall story American Made is an entertaining yet informative film and excels because of the Cruise/Liman reteam.