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Film Reviews Review: Soaring past the facts of its source material, American Made feels like a writer’s flight of fancy

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal in American Made.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
American Made
Written by
Gary Spinelli
Directed by
Doug Liman
Starring
Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, and Sarah Wright
Genre
Biopic
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2017

Barry Seal is already in over his head, and he hasn't even done anything yet.

Beaten down by the day-to-day drudgery of an airline pilot's quotidian life, Barry falls hard when a Central Intelligence Agency operative sidles up one day in 1978 and dangles a more glamorous assignment: to fly a sleek Aerostar 600 over the jungles of El Salvador, Guatemala and other South American hot spots to shoot reconnaissance photos of America's apparent enemies.

But there's a catch: Barry can't tell anyone the truth, even his wife. So he comes home with a fake business card for his new gig, furnished by the spook, which boasts the very-non-CIA-sounding acronym of … er … "IAC." He explains to his wife that it stands for "Independent Aviation Consultants." She fixes him with a glare: "It sounds made up, Barry." He looks at her forlornly, his childlike reverie shattered. "It does?"

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It does. But then, so does a lot of American Made, despite its claim of being based on the true story of a rascal who served his ungrateful country from the late 1970s to 1986, and who's to say? Certainly not Tom Cruise, who is having too much fun bringing his familiar flyboy to director Doug Liman's lightweight, sun-soaked take on Scorsese to be brought down to Earth by mere facts.

In short order, Barry graduates from taking photos to ferrying cocaine for the nascent Medellin cartel. Oh, sure, there's a little turbulence: Not all of the federal agencies see eye to eye with the CIA, so when he gets a tip about a search warrant, Barry has to pack up his pregnant wife (Sarah Wright, in an undercooked part) and two kids under cover of darkness and relocate his operations to an Arkansas backwater.

But it's not long before he's expanding operations, running AK-47s to Nicaragua and returning home with planeloads of contras, who take up residence in a lackadaisical training camp set up by his CIA minder (the shape-shifting Domhnall Gleeson) on his sprawling property to shoot guns, eat pizza and enjoy American girlie magazines.

These are fun and bacchanalian times: Barry takes a spin down south to introduce his wife to his Colombian friends, dance the night away and make love to her in the cockpit on the flight home. He becomes a pillar of the community, sponsoring Little League and setting up apparently more front businesses than there are legitimate ones in town.

But the cash comes in faster than he can launder it, and the authorities come snooping around.

Much of the lure of these stories – and, let's be honest, from Goodfellas to The Wolf of Wall Street, there are many of them – is in the carnival come-on, the promise that what you're about to see actually happened. The notion that Barry, trying to evade the authorities, crash-landed a Cessna on a suburban street and emerged in a cloud of cocaine to hand over wads of cash to a gawking teen and then pedal away on a bike, is great, gonzo fun. But its whimsy is significantly less delightful if it's merely the fruit of a writer's overripe imagination.

Still, there's an aspirational pleasure in seeing Cruise, now in his mid-50s, jump through these hoops. He knows we prefer him when he shades his easy charm with self-doubt, and Barry has a pleasingly sweaty desperation.

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But not enough: There's a moment, deep in the film, when the jig finally looks as if it's up: Barry is in custody, and a rabid attorney-general has the bit between her teeth.

But then he looks around at the FBI agents who have brought him in, and he smiles like – well, like Tom Cruise – and you know all will be fine. At least for a time.

After all, he's American made.

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