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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024