A huge part of what's sustained Tom Cruise's longevity as a movie star is his immense charisma and likability. He runs real fast and flashes his million-tooth grin, and you're immediately on his side. Even when he's ranging from mischievous to dastardly, there's a part of you who roots for his side. It's a factor that makes Doug Liman's American Made a complex viewing experience, as few titles similarly challenge the audience to simultaneously loathe and love a protagonist like the new movie does with Cruise's Barry Seal.
In reality, Barry Seal was a rather terrible individual (and yes, American Made is based on a true story... or at least based on accounts and reports trying to piece together exactly what happened). As depicted in Gary Spinelli's screenplay, Barry was a thrill-seeking commercial airline pilot and small-time smuggler working for TWA in the late 1970s when he was approached by a member of the Central Intelligence Agency. Introducing himself as 'Schafer' (Domhnall Gleeson), an agent puts an offer on the table to the pilot in a hotel bar: providing him the adventurous life that he seems to seek, Barry would run a front with the brilliantly covert name Independent Aviation Consultants (IAC), and use it as cover to fly missions to Central America and snap secret reconnaissance photos.
Even though the deal requires lying to his wife (Sarah Wright) about how he's spending his days, Barry excitedly accepts the assignment -- but because he is disappointed with government pay and is nothing if not an opportunist, Barry ends up uniting with Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and the Medellín Cartel to start smuggling cocaine out of Colombia and into the United States. This activity fails to slip past the nose of the U.S. government, but still Barry's status is nonetheless raised, the size of his operation is increased, and he ultimately finds himself heavily involved with the start of the Iran-Contra affair, also known as one of the most controversial political scandals in American history.
While relatively short, clocking in at just under two hours, American Made is very much built to essentially be Doug Liman's Goodfellas -- chronicling the epic rise and fall of a criminal enterprise that generated insane cash flow and good times in addition to serious danger and terrifying violence. It's a natural story for cinema, full of enough extreme ups and downs and stranger-than-fiction events to trip out any audiences unfamiliar with the reality that inspired it, and it opens up Doug Liman to a sense of style not really seen before in his movies -- with lots of bold color and strong cinema verite influences providing an almost documentary-esque feel. It's easy to see the motivation to bringing the tale to the big screen in this sense, even while the storytelling feels hampered by its semi-glorification of its central figure.
American Made marks the second collaboration between Tom Cruise and Doug Liman after Edge of Tomorrow, but while it was great to watch Cruise become the fictional slimy jerk Lt. Col. Bill Cage in that movie, it's questionable if he was the appropriate choice for this feature. Because the film relishes so much in the insanity of its true story and the unfettered criminal activity that was allowed to persist, it never takes any time to look at all the people hurt by what Barry Seal was doing, and as a result doesn't take a judgmental stance on him beyond whether or not he is an interesting character. It doesn't even have a strong authority figure trying vigilantly to bring him down. Add in Cruise's presence and aforementioned charisma, however, and it winds up tilting the scales in the wrong direction -- and the result is that you have a lot of fun watching him in the moment (playing the government for fools, making so much money he can't even hide it on his massive property), but are left with an unfortunate after taste in your mouth while leaving the theater.
The politics inherently tied up in the story make American Made a challenging film to recommend, but supplemented with appropriate extra research about the subject matter, I think it can be. After all, at the end of the day, it has one hell of a story to tell, and tells it in a visually arresting way, and sometimes that's enough for a proper cinematic experience.