There’s an element of nostalgia in seeing Tom Cruise back in the cockpit in American Made, and not just because it takes place in the early 1980s.
While watching this engaging true-life story of drug cartels, weapons smuggling, money laundering, and government corruption, you realize that it’s been more than 30 years since Top Gun, and Cruise has aged really well since then. Plus, the star’s charisma makes him an ideal fit for a fledgling commercial airline pilot who becomes a pawn in an international maze of greed and excess.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, whose flying expertise combined with a tendency to sneak cigars through customs makes him the ideal candidate for Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA operative circa 1978 seeking someone to get intelligence on Communist hideouts in Central America from Nicaraguan officials in exchange for government cash.
Soon, his actions catch the attention of a ruthless Colombian drug cartel operated in part by Pablo Escobar, who needs a vessel for cocaine trafficking back to the States. Then the conflict in Nicaragua takes a turn, causing Schafer to add guns to Barry’s cargo — meant to arm the Contra rebels in their fight against the Sandinista regime.
Soon, it all spirals out of control for Barry, whose backdoor dealings leave his loyalties conflicted. But that doesn’t matter as long as the money keeps flowing to his wife (Sarah Wright), who raises their kids in a nondescript Arkansas town where they’ve been given a home and 2,000 acres. Barry realizes only too late that the endless riches come with a price.
The film’s breezy and lighthearted approach is appropriate considering the multifaceted absurdity in Barry’s situation, with enough time having passed to gently mock the intertwined sleaziness in which he becomes inextricably complicit.
While it embellishes some historical details, the screenplay skewers the sociopolitical climate at the time — such as Reagan-era foreign policy, domestic economic volatility, and Cold War espionage — with a clear yet restrained cynicism. Its exploration of the moral complexities for Barry is more muddled. He becomes the hero almost by default.
In the end, there’s not much contemporary resonance, yet Cruise and director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) offer a slick sales pitch that convinces you the material is all true (even if most of it really is). A serious treatment might have been more informative, but probably not as entertaining.