On March 24th of this year, young shooting guard Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns put on an astounding performance. He managed to score 70 points in one game, becoming the youngest player to score 60+ points in the NBA. However, despite his historic effort, the Suns still lost the game by 10 points, 120-130. This athlete gave it his all, but it still wasn’t enough to win. Watching what happened to Booker – putting on this incredible effort, but still losing because of his team – is a lot like watching Tom Cruise in American Made. He’s thrown the film on his back and is giving it his all, but it still falls just short of being great.
American Made follows the true story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a commercial airline pilot who from 1978-1986 ended up working for the CIA taking reconnaissance photos of communist-backed insurgencies in Latin America, and parlayed that into helping the Medellin cartel smuggle cocaine into the states, and then parlayed that into supplying arms for the Contras. He became insanely rich but also one of the most hunted men by both US agencies and the cartels.
Cruise reteams with director Doug Liman, who Cruise resurrected creatively with the supremely underrated Edge of Tomorrow. Before that, Liman hadn’t done a film with a pulse in almost a decade. Here, there’s the argument to made that there’s almost too much of a pulse. He employs a docu-drama feel to how he shoots the film, relying on handheld camera movements to heighten the realism while shading the imagery with a 16 mm grain to evoke news channel aesthetics. This juggling act really strikes at certain sequences in American Made, but can also otherwise feel haphazard without a focus of intent.
Cruise is as magnetic as ever. He employs a Louisiana southern accent and the charm that comes with it. The first scene tells us a lot about Barry. He fakes turbulence in the middle of a flight just to fuck with everyone, smiling at himself for pulling it off. He’s a thrillseeker. He enjoys the challenge of doing things you shouldn’t. Cruise injects a lot of humor and humanity into Barry, making the film exhilarating with how much of a thrill he’s having. Plain and simple, Cruise is the reason to see this film. Cruise is one of the last true movie stars, always thinking of how to best entertain the audience. His decisions for what movies he does aren’t determined by paychecks, but by entertainment. He’s one of the last actors who does every possible stunt they can themselves, you can always trust what you’re seeing him doing. In this film, Cruise did a majority of the stunt plane flying himself – he’s even listed as such in the credits! Domhnall Gleeson is always a welcome addition to any cast, especially when he’s sleazing it up like he is here as Schaffer, the CIA officer who employs Barry.
The last few minutes of the film are utterly brilliant. I don’t know whether or not what happens would be considered spoilers since it’s historical material, so I’ll tread as carefully as I can. Throughout the film, we cut to tapes that Barry has made of himself recounting his role in everything as insurance and hope that the truth will get out should his fate turn negative after being left out to dry by the US government. Earlier in the film, he proclaims “But I’ll be damned if this isn’t the greatest country on Earth.” We return to his proclamation, but this time he’s cut off before he can finish it. It’s a searing moment, one that vindicates a good portion of the shortcomings. To cap it off, we witness Schaffer in his office hearing negative news of Barry, and he storms to his superior’s office, with us thinking he’s going to go on a tyrade about how the government betrayed Barry, but instead he comes up with the idea for the Iran-Contra affair. American Made finally finds its purpose in the final moments, with indicting sequences and edits. I just wish it could have found it sooner, instead it left Cruise shouldering the team in a 120-130 loss.