‘American Made’ Entertains But Offers Moral Puzzles

‘I’ On Culture

Many critics seem to like American Made, but frankly, I think it might be more because they like the political message in it than because it is an exceptional movie. There are some good moments, but the message is so compromised that it becomes a strange moral puzzle.

The hero works for drug dealers, for gun runners, and we are supposed to be cheering him on. There are times when moral ambiguity works, but here it is clearly a setup.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a bored pilot working for TWA who is recruited by a CIA operative. The operative comes to him one day in 1978 with an offer for much more fun flying a fast private jet over Central and South America to shoot reconnaissance photos of guerrillas. Of course, he has to lie about it, and he even has to pretend he’s working for a business. Although he’s supposed to be clever, he tells his wife (Sarah Wright) that he works not for the CIA, but for the IAC. And right from the start, she pretty much understands there’s something wrong. One of the better jokes in the movie is when she tells him the name sounds made-up and he looks back (with a great Tom Cruise look), “It does?”

And so it goes. He starts doing far more. After a while, he begins to move drugs and money for the Medellín Cartel. Since the mean police people do not like drug running, he winds up having to pack up and hide in Arkansas. Even though there is no doubt he’s doing the wrong thing, we see the government arranging to let him go.

Seal gets in deeper, running guns to Nicaragua and bringing in teams of Contras, who seem to be more interested in enjoying girlie magazines, shooting off guns and eating pizza than fighting. Seal becomes more important, bringing his wife down to Colombia to meet his friends and have a romantic interlude, while setting up front businesses to handle all the money coming in. And then the mean old government steps in and tries to ruin everything.

Is any of this true? The ads say the film is “based on a true story.” But the man portrayed never actually worked for the CIA and, according to him, never had the great times we see in the film. Of course, then again, he is not Tom Cruise. And the film really wants to make its political points.

When you present the drug runners as good guys and have a charming star such as Cruise, using his trademark grin and generally rumpled hair, as a key part of the pact, things get confused. Escobar, the head of the drug cartel, comes off better than most of the American government representatives. Cruise at one point crash-lands a plane in a suburb and, covered with cocaine, bicycles away. So much for cocaine poisoning.

Yet the picture is entertaining. Tom Cruise still can be incredibly charming and can carry the film. His casting was probably vital in carrying out the movie, and many stars have revived flagging careers by playing villains. But playing a villain as a hero is a bit strange, particularly for someone with his charisma.

Most of the rest of the cast just hangs around, not allowed to be much more than stereotypes. Of course, the women are all beautiful and are far more age-appropriate to play Cruise’s daughters than anything else, but stars can avoid aging.

Again, this film is somewhat entertaining, as long as the nasty undertones don’t bother you. I was more bothered by the lack of some of that at places, but then again, I am not a fan of cocaine.

Should you see the movie? It was not awful, but at around $10 a ticket, it is not a great buy. Narcos on Netflix is far better. I enjoyed Kingsman more, and next week we have Blade Runner 2049. According to very early reviews, that one is spectacular. See that and wait for this to show up on demand in a few weeks.