One of the great things about movies is that you get to have your cake and eat it, too. This is also one of the bad things about movies.
Take gun violence, for example. Everybody loves a good gunfight. Without them, you couldn't make a good western. The "shoot 'em up" is actually a genre unto itself. Our good guys must be good with a gun, and they need only the thinnest of legal sanction or moral motivation to get us to accept images of them killing lots of people for our entertainment while still feeling good about ourselves. But in real life, we all agree gun violence is horrible. At the movies, we get to have our cake and eat it, too.
Gangster movies are another example. They take the conventional heroic structure, but plug in a bad guy instead of a good guy. We get that we're not supposed to really be rooting for this guy doing all this horrible stuff, but he's got the most close-ups, and that gangster really loved his mama, so we kind of root for him anyway. And if that objectively evil guy with the most close-ups is Tom Cruise, you bet we're going to root for him.
In American Made, Cruise plays Barry Seal. When we first meet him, it's 1978, and he's an airline pilot for TWA with a sideline smuggling Cuban cigars into the United States in his carry-on. Always with a good eye for talent, the CIA, in the person of Monty "Schafer" (Domhnall Gleeson), recruits him to start flying covert spying missions in Central America. He quits TWA to start working for himself as an Independent Aviation Consultant (IAC) for the CIA. Pretty soon, he's graduated from the Toronto-Baton Rouge milk run to dodging Sandinista ack-ack in Nicaragua. Then, budding businessman Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejía) discerns that a man with Seal's aviation talents who enjoys the protection of the United States government would probably be good at smuggling cocaine, too. From 1977 to 1985, Seal was living the freelancer's dream: a top-notch reputation that enabled him to command top dollar ($2,000 a kilo) from multiple clients with deep pockets.
But complications cropped up, as they always do. In Seal's case, it was getting in the middle of a raid by Colombian paramilitaries and tossed in jail. "Schafer" springs him, but he must move his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and two kids from Baton Rouge to Mena, Arkansas, just before the DEA executes a search warrant on his house. Fortunately, his buddies in the CIA set him up good, and in no time flat, he's back in business and rolling in the dough.
American Made is directed by Doug Liman, who got his start in the indie '90s with Swingers, a Hollywood hangout movie that launched the careers of Vince Vaughn and Iron Man director Jon Favreau, and Go, a Tarantino-flavored minor classic. Liman has not been fortunate with names lately, as his excellent, sci-fi Groundhog Day riff Edge of Tomorrow tanked after having its title changed from the more evocative Live, Die, Repeat. American Made is also a bland title hiding a tight, entertaining film. Screenwriter Gary Spinelli ties together the loose, anecdotal story with Seal's videotaped confession. Like the seminal documentary Cocaine Cowboys, American Made is at its most fun when it's exploring the mechanics of the drug trade. Liman puts cameras in the cockpits of tiny planes to give the audience the POV experience of dropping down onto a dirt runway, surrounded by jungle. When he gets laughs, it's from the gleeful amorality of both the spies and the cartels, two groups who surely deserved each other.
Cruise turns up the douche flow to maximum and — despite a fluid, faux-Louisiana accent — it works like a charm. Seal knows how to do two things: fly any aircraft onto any dirt runway in the world, and glad hand good ole' boys. But that's all he needs to know to make more money than he knows what to do with. He's the perfect subject for Liman, because he was caught between the Reagan administration's two greatest foreign policy priorities: stopping (often illusionary) international communist conspiracies and the War on Drugs. First, he was getting paid handsomely by both sides; then he became a scapegoat for both sides' failure. Such is the life of the freelancer.