Overstuffed and exagerrated, yet allows its debauchery to flourish!
by Steve Pulaski
American Made has garnered almost uniformly positive reviews; enough to bill it as one of the highest-rated mainstream releases this year. I'm not sure why this film is worthy of such praise, but Todd Phillips' War Dogs, last year's underrated gem starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, concerning very similar topics in a similarly brazen way, merited such critical disgust. American Made isn't as exhilarating as that film, nor does it have the central preoccupation with the slimy interworkings of business, but its similarly exhausting, sweat-soaked adrenaline is something I can't help but praise.
Perhaps what won people over is Tom Cruise's charismatic performance and good ol' boy smile. It wouldn't be the first time. Cruise has never been an actor I've found very interesting; boring, in fact, with a tendency to take on a lot of generic roles as opposed to challenging ones like he did years back. With American Made, he bounces back in a way that offers the few people of the same mindset as myself that Cruise might continue taking roles that are worth a look. The way he throws himself to be a high-octane thunderstick of energy in this film shows he's not only more than dedicated, but capable. It's a performance of complete exhaustion that I'm not sure just any other actor could've handled with the same laudable gravitas.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA airline pilot turned CIA mole, tasked with performing reconnaissance missions in South America to help identify militant communist groups in the 1970s. Barry starts "simple," flying a speedy plane over low over these regions, snapping high-quality pictures while dodging bullets. He is then granted something of a promotion by Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA agent, to serve as a courier in Panama amidst rising tensions with General Noriega. Before long, Barry begins working for the Medellin Cartel, flying bundles of cocaine over the ocean to drop off in the swamps of Louisiana.
Just before the CIA raids his home following an arrest, as tipped by Schafer, Barry rounds up his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) and children and moves from Baton Rouge to Mena, Arkansas, a largely deserted podunk locale that is just low-key yet plentiful enough for Barry to conduct his operation. Schafer sticks him with dozens of acres of land, most of which utilized exclusively for his airbase operations. He forms a team of misfits, he flies over violent regions with guns and drugs in tow, and collects double-bags of money he can't even properly count after a while. All those vacant lots in Mena begin to reopen as banks with a whole lot of dirty money in their vaults.
American Made belongs to the same genre as The Wolf of Wall Street and the aforementioned War Dogs. All three are contemporary movies, set during turbulent times in American politics that celebrate excess and highlight rampant corruption through cynical humor. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite genres in American film, although it plays different beats from how directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese once highlighted similar topics. These are pictures with an anti-hero at their core and plentiful observations about the depraved and unethical political landscape.
Film critic MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher opines that perhaps political corruption and government-involved drug-smuggling shouldn't be as fun nor as funny as screenwriter Gary Spinelli makes it out to be. She's not wrong. The desensitization many Americans face to dirty politics on a national and local level is appalling but also bred by a government with little to no care for its citizens, let alone people from other nations. If these films do their part to show, even in a dramatized, comedic light, how filthy and repugnant politics was, or still is, they're doing a good job - even if that job is hindered with confirmation bias.
Cinematographer César Charlone (City of God) lends American Made an exciting visual palette. The film resembles the high fidelity quality of a VHS tape, starting at the Universal logo and even not letting up at the end credits, which bear the kind of oddly grainy primary colors you'd find opening a trippy Adult Swim show when you should be asleep. A recurring frame in the film has Spinelli going back to show Barry recording low-grade home-videos in the many motels in which he spends his later days, inking the VHS tapes with locations and years upon vocalizing events in detail. Charlone essentially takes the quality-standard of these Maxwell tapes and recreates them on-screen, offering a look and feel to a film you could reasonably believe was shot on film-stock as opposed to digital, state-of-the-art camcorders.
The film was directed by Doug Liman (director of the John Cena/Aaron Taylor-Johnson film The Wall from a few months back), and he shows that he hasn't lost a directorial beat since The Bourne Identity. Liman and company expertly choreograph stunts and handle the aviation scenes with a lot of clarity and precision. American Made sometimes feels overstuffed, and exaggerations rear their heads on a regular basis, something you almost have to accept with this genre. It gets by on its ability to peel back and discern the scope of a global drug cartel, combining slick, retrograde production and an amiable performance by Cruise to form a foundation for its full-fledged debauchery to flourish.
Steve's Grade: B