Ronald Reagan, we were told in the 1980s, brought to the White House a worldview suffused with America-boosting Hollywood cliché and informed by dodgy facts. Liberals blanched when Tom Cruise amplified this voice in the Reaganite Top Gun. Three decades on, the charge is being trotted out again, only this time it is Cruise who is making it, in a film suffused with America-bashing Hollywood cliché and informed by dodgy facts.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a real-life Louisiana TWA pilot-turned-drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel who got rich in the 1970s and 1980s before he was eventually busted. Desperate, he volunteered to turn informant for the DEA and earned the wrath of the drug lords after photographing some of them with cameras the CIA had installed on his plane . All of this is shown in American Made, but as far as I can tell, most of the rest is fabricated. Seal is, for instance, shown working for the CIA first to conduct spy missions, then becoming a drug trafficker while also delivering CIA rifles to the Contras, and then welcoming the Contras to his Mena, Ark. headquarters for training. Yet according to the author of what appears to be a well-sourced book on Seal, the pilot was not a CIA employee or asset. That’s awkward: Seal’s supposed CIA gig is the central element of this movie. It’s as if it turned out that Goodfellas narrator Henry Hill wasn’t in the mafia at all but was instead hijacking trucks and burying bodies as a foot soldier for the National Endowment for the Arts.
American Made could have been called American Made-Up. It amounts to an enormously contrived effort by Doug Liman, the son of the Senate’s lead counsel in the Iran-Contra hearings, to reshape the tangle of that scandal into a larkish Tom Cruise adventure. Truth was not an impediment. “We’re not making a biopic,” Liman has said, confessing that during filming he would dream up on the spot entertaining new exploits for Seal: “Wouldn’t it be fun if we did this, or funny if we did that?” He calls the film a “fun lie” in publicity notes. Yet American Made has no core to hold it together if it uses a real person, real events, and even news clips of Reagan talking about matters discussed in the movie, to cloak its many fabrications in history. We love Goodfellas because we know it happened, because it’s a confession. American Made borrows the confession motif and many other elements from Goodfellas, but it’s mostly just Liman and Cruise fun-lying.
At the start, Cruise’s Seal is shown being so bored by his job as a TWA pilot in the 1970s that he dramatically quits, literally walking off the plane while it’s on the runway preparing to take off. (In reality, he was fired back in the 1960s.) A mysterious CIA handler called “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) recruits him to fly a super-slick new plane in order to take pictures of radical training camps in Central America, where Seal gets approached by Pablo Escobar and other leaders of the Medellin Cartel to start delivering huge amounts of cocaine to America.
Was Seal being run by the CIA? Former FBI agent Del Hahn, who was involved with Seal’s case and published a book on him, says no, citing Seal’s own sworn testimony and interviews. “There is not one iota of credible evidence that Seal ever worked for the CIA or assisted them in any operations,” Hahn told Vice. But Liman and his screenwriter Gary Spinelli badly need a much stronger CIA connection than Seal’s merely having had spy cameras on his plane during that DEA sting because that’s the conduit they have for bashing Reagan and tying in the Iran-Contra scandal, to which this entire movie is supposedly the back story. Seal, whose life had a sensational (but not particularly mysterious) final act, is something of a grassy-knoll figure on the left, forever popping up in tall tales about the secret web connecting everything from 1963 Dallas to the 1980s crack epidemic, and American Made appears to have sprung from the fever swamps of speculative, thinly sourced radical journalism.
Not that American Made isn’t, for a while, an entertaining fiction, for all of its inferiority to Goodfellas. Seal gets himself in one crazy situation after another: Looking for a place to hide a duffel bag of money, he digs a hole in the backyard — only to discover there’s already a bag of money there. He opens a cabinet and bags of money fall on his head. (Filthy lucre, it appears, can both damage your soul and give you a concussion.) On a smuggling escapade with other pilots, Seal notices one of them is asleep, and decides the only way he can rouse the offender is by smacking the guy’s wing with his own. Seal and his wife join the zero-gravity Mile High Club while he’s at the controls of his plane. At the bank, a manager informs him that the building needs an additional vault because of all the cash he’s bringing them.
None of this is overly burdened with plausibility. But as entertainment, the movie eventually gets tiresome, mainly because Cruise sucks up all the oxygen in it. All of the barely there subsidiary characters turn up for the sole purpose of reflecting his awesomeness, making him look cool. In a scene so preposterous it’s like an unintended homage to the absurdist street fight in Anchorman, Seal gets simultaneously cornered by every law-enforcement official in America above the level of elementary-school crossing guard but, naturally, he’s completely in control, as if he and Liman think the movie is about dashing Ethan Hunt rather than lumpy Barry Seal, who was actually a 250-pound dirtbag who got in so far over his head that he thought he didn’t need witness protection after crossing Pablo Escobar.
The movie’s raison d’être, though, is its supposed grand theme that Barry, who thinks he’s living the American dream, instead embodies American folly. In his heedless, amoral, cowboy adventurism, he is meant to be a kind of mini-Reagan. Wow, deep, we’re meant to think of this crude insight, this is the guy who got caught for carrying out Reagan’s criminal orders. Francis Ford Coppola made a point about organized crime as a parody of our national folklore without a word being spoken in The Godfather, Part II, as young Vito Corleone gazed at the Statue of Liberty. Spinelli’s script, on the other hand, makes sure we get the point by delivering multiple scenes giving Cruise lots of America: F**k yeah! dialogue. If trafficking in cliché were a federal offense, everyone involved with this movie would be looking at prison time.