The story of Barry Seal, an American pilot who became a drug-runner for the CIA in the 1980s in a clandestine operation that would be exposed as the Iran-Contra Affair.
Based on trailers from last year alone, American Made seemed to be one of the more interesting and promising films aligned with my tastes. As should be clear from my lack of 2017 reviews, I didn’t get around to seeing it when in theaters, but when it popped up on streaming, this was an insta-watch for me. While American Made does delivery some big setpieces and has a built-in wow factor being based off a true story, a lot of the film missed the mark and left me mostly underwhelmed.
Tom Cruise does seem tailor-made for this role as drug-smuggler, CIA informant, and badass pilot Barry Seal. He was involved with Pablo Escobar’s operation, the Contras in Nicaragua, retrieving information from General Noriega in Panama, and a whole bunch of other shady activities. The film also focuses on some family drama that unfolds at Barry Seal’s home, first in Louisiana and then in a small town in Arkansas. A lot unfolds over the course of American Made and it earns a bunch of entertainment-points kind of by default given the story elements are undeniably fascinating.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the film. While Cruise seems like a perfect fit for the role, and most likely is the best option, I couldn’t help wondering as I watched whether a less-famous actor could’ve been better. For large parts of the film, instead of seeing Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, investing in Seal’s story and antics, I was stuck with the image of Cruise/big-name Hollywood actor doing lots of cool things. Putting acting aside, because it’s not a major issue with the film, what I want to concern myself with most is the timeline of everything.
A major problem I seem to have with a lot of biopics is filmmakers incorporation of large swaths of events. It’s a really tough nut to crack, and I overlook it as much as I can because it’s hard to tell decades-worth of stories in a condensed fashion. American Made comes close I think, but still misses the execution. Director Doug Liman assists the audience by displaying helpful title cards to show the year and primary group that Barry Seal is working for at the moment, but it’s also a detriment in some ways. Seal was doing a lot of things, and doing them constantly. He has his hands in too many pots that it’s hard to keep track of the most important thing at any given moment. And while the timeline is made clear with the helpful titles, there’s a bit of discontinuity as we see home videos of Barry Seal narrating particular events.
All-in-all it’s a mindblowing tale, with Cruise convincingly playing the main character, that meanders around the story bits just a bit too much. The big picture is crystal clear and we really get a good sense of who Barry Seal was, but diving down into the nitty gritty is where American Made loses steam a bit and gets sidetracked. While it didn’t live up to my expectations, I would still recommend giving this a watch if it comes around your streaming list.
P.S. Fun casting note — as I’m currently watching Narcos on Netflix, it was a bit funny to see Mauricio Mejia, who plays Carlos Castano on the show (founder of Los Pepes and decidedly anti-Escobar), play Pablo Escobar himself in American Made.
3 out of 5