If you know me, you know I can’t shy away from Tom Cruise. There’s something about Cruise’s charisma and constantly-changing hairstyle that keeps me coming back. You can probably break down every character he has played and come to the realization they’re more or less cut from the exact same mold, but when I go to see a Tom Cruise blockbuster, I go in assured that I’m going to have at least some semblance of fun at the movies. With American Made (2017), you certainly get more of the same, but Tom Cruise smiles his way through the whole movie and makes it a two hours pretty well spent.
Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, an American pilot who became a drug-runner for the CIA in the 1980s as part of a clandestine operation that would be exposed as the Iran-Contra Affair. The movie spans from the late-70s to the mid-80s as Seal chronicles his life as an airline captain before CIA operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) gives him an opportunity to smuggle guns to arm the Contra. Soon enough, Seal finds himself in the employ of Pablo Escobar, smuggling cocaine into the U.S., and we have another movie to add to the “Escobar Universe” along with Blow (2001) and any other movie where someone plays Pablo Escobar’s “guy”. The guy had a lot of guys, apparently.
Once the main plot kicks in, the movie is on straight up Cruise Control for the remaining hour-and-a-half. That’s not to say it’s a lot of Tom Cruise sprinting and shooting people – quite the contrary. This is not an action movie, it’s a biopic focusing on a decade of a man’s life and the crazy things he did/saw while “serving his country.” It’s nothing ground-breaking, but I did appreciate that it isn’t a black-and-white “say no to drugs” whitewashing of the United States government. They were involved in the handling of these narcotics and that’s a fact. The pacing works a little too fast in some instances, with jarring time jumps across the decade; in one scene it’s 1978, and then the next scene it’s two years later and you just have to accept that and keep going because Tom Cruise doesn’t stop talking, which means the movie does not slow down. This is one of those rare instances in which a movie would have benefited from being longer and expanding upon some of the years Barry Seal spent not knowing which side he was on.
I’m not a fan of the shooting style. It’s the same issue I had with The Big Short (2015); it’s a hybrid of normal continuity-editing and documentary Cinéma Vérité. To me, it feels like the movie can’t make up its mind on how to present itself. I get the idea, it’s supposed to be a narrative film with a documentary vibe. I’m just not a fan of the two styles mushed together like Play-Doh: pick one. The only times I’ve liked that style of filmmaking is in something hyper-realistic like Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation. The camerawork also tries to incorporate 80s-style zooms at random points in the movie and it comes off as more insulting to 80s filmmaking than it does flattering.
What can I say, I was expecting just another Tom Cruise action movie and what I got was just another Tom Cruise movie – with no action – but with some of Cruise’s most charismatic work to date. It’s not an uncommon trend to advertise your movie as an action blockbuster to sell tickets and give people little to no action at all. But if you’re going to do that, you’d better be sure the drama you provide is interesting enough to keep the audience invested. While the Escobar trope is over-saturating the market in the wake of Narcos and the twelve other Escobar biopics that have come out during the past decade-and-change, I appreciated that Escobar isn’t the protagonist here and the movie examines his empire during its earliest stages. It’s certainly a small breath of fresh air when it seems like every movie featuring Escobar portrays him as Wilson Fisk.
American Made gives you the Tom Cruise you love to watch, and while the pace can disorient you and the narrative isn’t as refined as other biopics from this era have been, it’s a quick and fun watch, unapologetic in the way it documents our own government’s involvement with this “War on Drugs.”