Movie Review: American Made (2017)
“American Made” is a fun, rollickin’ look at the insane juxtaposition of South American drugs, anti-communist rebels and right-wing American politics in the early 1980s. I laughed throughout at the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all.
Pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a good-ol-boy cog in these machines. At each turn, as things ratchet up and he’s faced with a powerful and dangerous handler giving him a new insane mission, he just tosses up his hands, gives us that Tom Cruise All-American smile, and says, “Whatever you say, boss.” He’s the daredevil trying to thread his way amidst several colliding enterprises. No wonder he gets crushed.
I liked that aspect of the movie. A lot. I also liked that we were getting necessary history here—the Howard Zinn-ish underside of the All-American smile, the cynical wink behind the Reagan-era propaganda.
Until, that is, I looked into the history.
Ellin Stein at Slate goes over some of the discrepancies between fact and fiction here, but it may be enough to know that the movie opens in 1978 with Seal as a straight-laced TWA pilot who gets sucked into the biz by a CIA contact named “Shafer” (Domhnall Gleeson), when Seal wasn’t with TWA in 1978. He was fired in ’72 after being arrested for running plastic explosives. So not exactly straight-laced. He also didn’t look like Tom Cruise, either—more like a ’70s-era Joe Don Baker—but that’s artistic license we’re used to from Hollywood. Hell, that’s the one we demand.
In the movie version, Seal is so bored with his routine that he fakes midnight turbulence to jolt the passengers and can’t be bothered to schtup his hot blonde wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), back in Baton Rouge. Then “Shafer” arrives. Initially Seal is just taking CIA reconnaissance photos—the best anyone in the agency has seen!—but on a runway in Colombia he’s requested at a meeting with the Medellin cartel (Escobar, et al.), and agrees, on his own, to transport their cocaine back to the U.S. Eventually he’s caught up in an Escobar raid and winds up in Colombian prison. Shafer springs him overnight (in reality he spent six months there), and warns him the DEA is descending. So Seal moves his family to the sleepy town of Mena, Arkansas, where the CIA has bought him a home and 2,000 acres—including his own airfield and fleet of planes.
Soon his team is running guns to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua—portrayed as materialistic dopes, less interested in overthrowing the Sandinistas than in stealing Seal’s sunglasses. The CIA decides they just lack training, and do it on Seal’s property in Arkansas. Half the Contras wind up fleeing into the Arkansas hills, their semi-automatics wind up in the hands of the Medellin cartel, and Seal, still transporting coke, can’t bury the money fast enough. Meanwhile, Pres. and Nancy Reagan are on TV extolling the virtues of the Contras and “Just Say No.” It’s a hilarious mass of hypocritical clusterfuckiness.
But how much of it is true? At one point, to disentangle himself from his various messes, Seal agrees to be a DEA informant and take photos of Escobar, et al., loading drugs with the Sandinistas, which would tie Reagan’s pet causes together: communists = drug runners. Then Reagan shows the photos during an address to the nation. Now the cartel knows Seal betrayed them. Nice going, Reagan!
Except ... Reagan gave that address to the nation in March 1986, a month after Seal was shot to death by the Medellins outside a Salvation Army facility, where he was doing community service work. As for the Contras being trained in Arkansas? There appears to be just one source on that. A shaky one.
Here’s a question I have for writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”): If you’re going to smudge the history, why not at least get the chronology right? Early on, we see Jimmy Carter giving his malaise speech from ’79 and then title graphics tell us it’s 1978. We see Reagan coming into office in 1981 and then title graphics tell us it’s still 1980.
Seriously, doesn’t anyone give a shit about chronology anymore?
Cruise is good in the title role—amoral and care-free and grinning to the very end, a kind of bookend to his 1980s “Top Gun” star turn—and Wright holds her own. Loved Jesse Plemons in a small role as the Mena sheriff who’d rather think the best of people, or look the other way, until Seal’s idiot brother-in-law, JB (Caleb Landry Jones), forces him to act. As for Jones, he does what he did in “Get Out”: adds a shiver of someone so off-kilter that the smooth-running enterprise gets creepy. If you’re looking to make your audience uncomfortable, plop him into your movie.
The movie’s fun. It’s a stew of all the idiot political crap we went through in the ’80s. As history? Take it with the grains of salt on your popcorn.