Tom Cruise’s southern accent as pilot and smuggler Barry Seal in American Made twangs with good-old-boy warmth when he asks a bribing CIA agent, “This is my bag [of cash]? This my plane? This my hangar?” The gifts that reward his rascally past deeds are not just emblems of incredibly good fortune, they uncannily summarize Cruise’s meaning as a movie star. The successful eager beaver with a perpetually boyish grin represents a reckless American spirit even when he’s doing the indefensible — like Seal’s running guns to Central America as part of a surreptitious plot that was eventually exposed in the Iran-Contra affair.
Compare that to Liam Neeson’s first image in the movie Mark Felt, as the camera circles his profile (featuring a prominent false nose), which makes him look like one of the sculptures at the entrance to the Supreme Court. The movie starts out with intimidation and awe as it tells behind-the-scene secrets of Felt’s actions as associate director of the FBI, attempting to make his own shadow agency of loyalists, resulting in the Watergate scandal.
Both American Made and Mark Felt contend with crises of heroism — men who do wrong while meaning well. The former is an outrageous comedy, the latter is a paranoid thriller. The comedy is forthright and politically amenable when Cruise’s unapologetic hustler explains his side of international subterfuge: “The Contras don’t want a war; they want to make money like the rest of us.” But the thriller pretends to appeal to higher instincts by snootily taking Washington, D.C., wealth for granted and taking up vague questions about character. Felt is described as “integrity, bravery, fidelity — the G-man’s G-man, competent, reliable, loyal.” Then the film gets lost in its attempt to explain that Felt’s betrayal of those qualities was, somehow, noble.
These contrasting approaches illustrate more than the difference between genres; they reflect the currently confused ethics surrounding public behavior and political consequences. Our media’s openly chosen partisanship, leading to judgmental methods of journalism, has created a general untrustworthiness about public institutions and about American character itself.
Barry Seal and Mark Felt represent opposing blue- and white-collar classes (and different cultural backgrounds), which are also part of the cultural confusion in these movies. Seal is a rash Everyman, while Felt is a figure of refined deliberateness. We’re meant to relate to one and admire the other. But whom would you trust?
The problem in both films is that the filmmakers have not made up their minds, either. American Made is directed by Doug Liman, with emphasis on Seal’s daring. Its colorful style recalls the flamboyant amorality of GoodFellas and Blow, and it’s often funnier and more succinct than either. (The shot of Seal and his trophy wife enjoying a Mile High Club orgasm as the plane and its contraband float gravity-free is the ultimate crime-is-sexy advert.) American Made also offers fleet social observation when Seal’s family relocates to Mena, Ark., and their culture clash includes dealing with his wastrel brother-in-law and eventually (briefly) the Clintons and George W. Bush. But the film’s overall jokiness never reaches the satisfying complexity of David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Michael Bay’s deceptively exuberant Pain & Gain.
Is Liman a satirist like Bay? Given his trashy filmography (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), it’s hard to tell whether Liman is just glibly skilled or whether — as the son of Arthur L. Liman, the chief counsel who conducted the Iran-Contra hearings in the Senate — he is just a privileged, unprincipled brat, rebelling against his father’s legacy. Cruise’s doomed, likable hero makes it seem as if Liman is also flouting notions of middle-class propriety. But it’s Cruise, thickened like Kyle Chandler, recognizably under pressure, who gives American Made its kick.
Peter Landesman directs Mark Felt under the unfortunate influence of All the President’s Men (1976), the very dull Woodward-Bernstein hagiography that unaccountably inspired the current generation of scoundrel-journalists. Mark Felt (subtitled “The Man Who Brought Down the White House”) is a partisan fever dream that reflects the revenge fantasies of certain journalists as well as politicians and deep-state officials. The film began production in April 2016, but its unclear perspective on Felt’s treasonous deceptions (Landesman seems reluctant to smell a rat) is in tune with the Left-media’s refusal to apply ethical standards to its own chosen political idols.
Scenes of blue-tinted paranoia lack the penetrating focus that was the only virtue of All the President’s Men — courtesy of legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis. Instead, Landesman’s crisis of heroism turns into a crisis of character, because the movie venerates Felt. Leeson not only towers over his runty cast members but he looks down on them haughtily, from Lincolnesque heights (a reminder that Neeson was Spielberg’s first choice to play Lincoln).
Hollywood’s old Biblical sagas were less reverential than this, and Landesman supplies Felt with a Job-like torment in the subplot of his estranged daughter who ran off to join the counterculture (shades of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral). It’s all meant to sentimentalize his professional and ethical betrayal — Felt also leaked information to Time magazine and the Washington Post and was the source Woodward-Bernstein referred to as “Deep Throat.” By only half-recalling the Watergate days, the film creates a chain of connection to the chicanery that today’s partisans use in their recent twisty explanations about former FBI chief James Comey and his close friend, investigator Robert Mueller.
This all-is-justified nightmare reveals its hypocrisy when a Felt underling reads a Democratic National Committee statement: “What’s involved here is not only the political life of this nation but the very morality of our leaders at a time when the United States desperately needs to revitalize its moral standards.”
Unfortunately, Mark Felt fails the moral standard set by Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), which not only had the urgency of good reporting but explored complex depths of character with visual ingenuity, aided by Broderick Crawford’s sensitive title performance. Cohen and Crawford made a controversial historical figure human; Mark Felt settles for making him patrician — the elitist euphemism for patriot.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.