Review Grade: C-
Doug Liman’s “American Made” is the latest project in recent years to tackle the turbulent Pablo Escobar/”War on Drugs” era of the late 70’s and 80’s, preceded by the Netflix TV show “Narcos” and the Bryan Cranston starring film “The Infiltrator” (and covered comprehensively in Billy Corben’s superb documentary “Cocaine Cowboys”). It's a fascinating chunk of American history complete with gang violence, shady US government doings, espionage, hypocrisy and moral grey area and of course the warped, nightmare vision of the American dream: ordinary people getting sucked into an exciting but dangerous life of crime and becoming flushed with cash overnight only to see that good life fall apart in epic (and often tragic) fashion. Ever since “Scarface,” it’s been fertile ground for TV and cinema.
“American Made” manages to check all those boxes in detailing the rise and fall of Barry Seal, (Tom Cruise) an ordinary American pilot who ends up working for the CIA, (flying weapons to South America for Ronald Reagan’s “secret war”) The Medellin Drug Cartel (smuggling drugs), the DEA and later the White House, all while trying to live a calm family life with his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. This extraordinary, complex story would make a great mini series, documentary or dramatized.
Unfortunately it’s been mangled and crammed into one hundred and fifteen minutes. The picture might have even benefited from being two hours or more; these sprawling crime sagas and their multitude of characters and time periods need the cinematic space to unfurl if you’re going to tell them in full. But currently “American Made” feels like an abridged crime epic-- an occasionally fun but mostly surface level telling.
The film gets off to a quick start (a rapid fire, anxious pace that is maintained throughout) but at the expense of setting up its protagonist. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli do a hasty and inadequate job of establishing Seal’s initial situation and why he would want to work for the CIA or the Medellin cartel in the first place. And as the film goes on they fail to flesh Seal out or dig into his psychology. There’s little in the way of a character ark beyond his realization that working for the cartel and the US government at the same time isn’t going to end for him.
The colorful cast of supporting characters, including Seal’s CIA contact Schafer, (Domhnall Gleeson) Lucy’s scuzzy weirdo/screw-up brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones, who just seems destined to play scuzzy weirdo/screw-ups in all his roles) and Seal’s Medellin contact Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) have a memorable scene or two but they get lost in the film’s comprehensive, messy biopic approach.
“American Made” races through its chronology like a bland presentation, stringing interesting and sometimes amusing episodes in Seals life together with little cohesion or dramatic kick. Despite the energetic pacing and frenzied editing the film feels like its on autopilot. There’s so much ground to cover (multiple players, four major narrative sections and the various plot strands within those sections to balance) that none of the material gets a chance to really settle and make a serious impact.
Making matters worse, “American Made” employs a jerky pseudo-documentary style that is mildly disorienting at best and flat out incoherent at worse. Uh, Doug…you directed “The Bourne Identity,” did you forget how to do shaky cam? Add to that, slick montages cut to 70’s/80’s music, cutaways, cheeky info graphics (a la “The Big Short”) and a contrived videotape confessional framing device in which Seal narrates the muddled events of the movie. In other words, the picture’s visual/formal style is just as unfocused as the rest of it.
Cruise is predictably in top form; his goofy and nervous energy is always watchable but the movie around him doesn’t cut deep enough. A great true story, ripe with big screen and small screen potential is adapted into a banal commercial studio product.