In the mid- to late-80s, just as Doug Liman was finishing up his undergraduate years at Brown University, his father was busy serving as chief counsel for the senate during the Iran-Contra Congressional hearings—yep, the ones that made Oliver North and Fawn Hall household names.
Thirty years later the younger Liman has become a respected director, beginning with his 1996 debut Swingers. His latest studio feature was 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, a seemingly throw-away sci-fi flick that came out of nowhere to be among the best of the year. And now he brings us American Made, starring Cruise as Barry Seal, the guy on the ground who essentially made the entire Iran-Contra fiasco possible. Seal spent his entire life on the edge, serving simultaneously as a drug informant for the DEA and a smuggler/weapons runner for the biggest drug cartel in the world.
Cruise brings Seal to life with the same manic bravado that used to permeate his characters—from Top Gun’s Maverick to Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossibleseries—helping us forget the trainwrecks that were his last two movies, 2016’sJack Reacher: Never Go Back and this past May’s god-awful The Mummy.
And though American Made plays fast and loose with the facts throughout, it still provides enough to give you the gist of Seal’s crazy life, and Liman and Cruise combine to turn it all into one helluva ride.
The film kicks off in 1978, while Barry was a hotshot TWA pilot (in real life he was fired by the airline in 1974). After getting caught for smuggling Cuban cigars (really it was marijuana and cocaine) into the US from Canada, the CIA (actually it was the DEA—but fine, I’ll stop) recruits him to fly over Central America taking surveillance photos of Communist insurgents in the region. Later his mission expands into serving as a courier between the US government and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and then into running guns from the US down to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and running the rebels up to the US for training. At the same time, Seal gets recruited by the Medellin cartel to run cocaine from Colombia to the US.
And, oh yes, did we mention he also has a wife and kids back home in Arkansas?
American Made is an almost too-crazy-to-be-true story of a man who went from nothing to a lifestyle that would have made both Evel Knievel and El Chapo cry uncle—all in a few short years and mostly with the backing of the US government. The screenplay by first-timer Gary Spinelli has occasional trouble keeping all the balls in the air, but it works for the most part, giving us a pretty solid (and entertaining) look at this wild and crazy man.
Liman keeps the pace moving fast and furious throughout, and cinematographer César Charlone gives American Made a nifty vintage feel, and all of it is propelled with a groovy late-70s soundtrack that includes the likes of Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” alongside the disco-tastic “A Fifth of Beethoven”.
Watching it, you can’t help but feel (or hope, more to the point) that American Made is indeed too crazy to be true, but it’s not. And it’s crazy-fun, too, going a long way toward putting the largely forgettable 2017 summer movie season far behind us.