If audiences are growing weary of seeing the legend “Based on a true story…” at the beginning of movies, they haven’t discouraged Hollywood from continuing to mine a seemingly bottomless reserve of real-life material. American Made gives director Doug Liman and his charismatic star, Tom Cruise, a superior vehicle and plays to their strengths. Cruise is perfectly cast as a TWA pilot named Barry Seal, who’s been making a little money on the side smuggling Cuban cigars in the 1970s. This attracts the attention of CIA liaison Domnhall Gleeson, who enlists the naive pilot to expand his illegal activities, with the supposed blessing of Uncle Sam. Pretty soon he’s dealing with the likes of Manuel Noriega in Panama and the Medellin drug cartel in Columbia (including a then-unknown Pablo Escobar), enjoying the adrenalin buzz that comes with the work.
Liman uses TV news footage from the period to show the passage of time and the changing moods—and attitudes—of the U.S. He and his editor, Andrew Mondshein, impose an accelerated pace on this material that gives the film a kinetic energy, accompanied by familiar pop songs of the period and a seamless score by Christophe Beck. This compressed historical survey won’t take the place of a journalism course on the period it does capture its flavor in bullet-point fashion—no pun intended.
Cruise shows once again why he is a movie star. He’s using more than his physicality to make Seal a believable character. He uses his still-boyish charm to win over his skeptical wife and, ultimately, the residents of a small Iowa town where he moves his family and sets up shop. As he evolves into a one-man money-laundering tycoon there are memorably funny scenes of him and his team trying to find ways of stashing away enormous packets of American dollars.
Director Liman understands both pacing and staging of action: remember, he made the original Bourne Identity (still the best film in that series) and collaborated successfully with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow. He’s also well-versed in the politics of this era, having made Fair Game with Naomi Watts as “outed” CIA operative Valerie Plame, and comes by this knowledge naturally: his father, Arthur L. Liman, was chief counsel for the Senate investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal, which figures in this narrative.
American Made may be something of a history lesson, especially for younger viewers who don’t remember Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan and some of the speeches that helped define their eras. But more important, it’s a solid piece of entertainment that takes a stranger-than-fiction story and brings it to life in convincing fashion.