As soon as the Universal logo flickers and switches to its retro ’70s look and the disco music starts to play, jazzing up Jimmy Carter speeches and old news footage, we know what we’re in for with the cocaine-smuggling adventure “American Made.” This is a romp and a half. Maybe even three.
Director Doug Liman has never been a minimalist filmmaker, and “American Made” just might be his most maximalist film yet. It skitters and jumps, shivers and boot-scoots, never, ever sitting still. You could say it’s like “Blow” on, well, blow. But there’s a breezy sunniness to this film, which looks like a faded snapshot reclaimed from an ’80s photo album. VHS lines and time stamps crackle effervescently.
“American Made” casts a nostalgic golden filter on what was admittedly a rather dark and dramatic period in U.S. history. Drug cartel-related violence plagued the Southeast while the first lady urged everyone to “just say no.” Meanwhile the American government was essentially allowing the illegal import of cocaine while providing guns to the rebels fighting the communist Sandinista army in Central America.
This is all told through the true-life story of pilot, drug smuggler and informant Barry Seal (Tom Cruise). Hotshot flyboy Seal is Maverick gone a bit soft, a commercial TWA pilot who takes up with the CIA and Medellin cartel because he’s got mouths to feed and an elastic moral compass.
Through Barry’s perspective, “American Made,” which is written by Gary Spinelli, is the Iran-Contra Affair for Dummies, explained in simple terms and sometimes animation via Barry’s voice-over (a framing device has him telling his life story into a VHS camera in late 1985, early 1986). With a Louisiana drawl, Cruise’s Barry joshes about how his top-secret CIA gig taking surveillance photos of the communist armies turned into delivering Soviet AK-47s to rebel fighters and returning with thousands of kilos of cocaine, dodging DEA and FBI planes along the way. All the while, he was raking in more cash than he could keep track of.
Magnetically energetic as always, Cruise merely serves as the star vessel through which this story passes. The supporting actors steal the show, including Caleb Landry Jones as his redneck brother-in-law and a fantastically smarmy Domhnall Gleeson as Barry’s CIA contact “Schafer.” Jesse Plemons is also predictably great in a small role as a naive small-town sheriff.
But this is Barry’s film from first frame to last. Some (OK, a lot of) creative license has been taken for dramatic effect, but when it comes to the governmental machinations, that’s all pretty real. It feels at times that “American Made” has too light a touch on this material, and the actual bad guys only take a few real shots for their responsibility in these events. Our sense of President Ronald Reagan here is as a cultural figure, the Gipper, rather than political actor.
“American Made” has some glorious moments when it’s firing on all cylinders at once, but it can’t sustain that throughout. It shows its references, a combination of “Goodfellas,” “Blow” and “Scarface,” but never achieves the internal consistency of those films. This is far more roughshod. But somehow, despite its jitters and at times herky-jerky awkwardness, “American Made” has an undeniable shaggy-dog charm.