Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.
In 2017, Doug Liman released American Made, based on Barry Seal’s drug smuggling operations during the 1980s. Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Alejandro Edda, Mauicio Mejia, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Frank Licari, Jed Rees, Caleb Landry Jones, Connor Trinneer, and Robert P. Farrior, the film grossed $134.9 million at the box office.
TWA pilot Barry Seal is contacted by a CIA case officer calling himself Monty Schafer who asks him to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions over Central America. Soon, he’s acting as a courier between the CIA and Panama, flying the Medellin Cartel’s cocaine back to the United States and running guns to the Nicaraguan Contras.
A better than average film, American Made takes a fascinating look at the events which would become known as the Iran-Contra affair through the actions of the man flying the airplane carrying everything. The plot does well in showing Seal go from a pilot working for TWA while smuggling in small items, including Cuban cigars to a rogue breaking numerous laws for continuously larger amounts of money. Notably, one of the major factors in where the film goes and what the audience sees Seal do is the fear of communists spreading in Central America and the United States government involving itself in the region as a counter. This factor is presented multiple times when Seal is narrating and explaining the context behind his actions. Simultaneously, the film works to portray the “Just Say No” campaign that happened alongside the events. This connection is well-made.
Moreover, Seal is an interesting character. He’s not portrayed as being in the right, but as opportunistic and willing to take a job despite its morality as well as a fun loving and charming family man who is generous and loved by his community. It just so happens he chooses to make his profit smuggling drugs into the country. However, the film shows he never actually went out of his way to become a drug smuggler or information, he said yes to doing so as they were opportunities he was presented. The very reason Seal got involved with the cartels is due to the CIA refusing to give him a raise for the dangerous work he was doing or supplying him with benefits comparable to those he received at TWA. His most notable character flaw is believing he is the stereotypical action movie lead. Seal thinks he’s the cool guy handling things well and having adventures while outwitting everyone else. Instead, his reality is he’s nothing more than a cog in the CIA’s wheel, part of which involves being the fall guy.
Members of the American government are not seen in a positive light either in this film. Noted above, they’re unwilling to give Seal more for the work he does and when everything is all said and done, the first thing Schaffer does is instruct all his subordinates to take everything they have on Seal and burn it. He isn’t against outright letting Seal know he’s left high and dry either, seen when he walks away and asks who Schaffer is when his name is called.
As for the acting, most of the actors give decent performances. It feels as if Cruise knew he didn’t need to take much other than his feelings from previous jobs in order to capture the personality behind Seal. For a majority of the movie, he’s got the swagger and demeanor down. Further, near the end of the film when Seal is going from motel to motel, yet the same Salvation Army halfway house, Cruise succeeds in making the character as paranoid as possible. Gleeson is good as Schaffer, too, convincingly depicting an amoral federal agent who would be willing to drop anybody as a contact on a moment’s notice.
Additionally, film keeps a constant, rapid pace throughout the entire runtime. This works to its advantage considering it’s portraying a fast life, running guns and drugs to and from different countries. It portrays Seal as a man who had very little time to breathe and few scenes allow the audience to do so, keeping them gripped whether he’s attempting his first cocaine run, getting shot at while in the air or outrunning the DEA.
Awards & Recognitions
bold indicates reception of award/recognition
Detroit Film Critic Society, US
- Breakthrough Artist (Caleb Landry Jones)