Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow was a deeply satisfying science fiction thriller that, despite its many charms, never found an audience. Liman’s follow-up, the cerebral The Wall made an even quieter splash, but without the same level critical acclaim.
Perhaps that’s why Liman takes so few risks with his latest film, American Made, starring Tom Cruise. What could have been a clever, acerbic assault on America’s foreign policy legacy is, instead, a toothless tale of one man’s inadvertent participation in America’s often hypocritical post-Vietnam War policies in Central America.
American Made follows the real-life story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a bored TWA pilot who is recruited by the CIA (represented by a brilliant Domhnall Gleeson as “Schafer”) to do fly-over photo surveillance of Central American insurgents. From there, Seal follows the money, trying his hand at smuggling everything from drugs to guns to people — often, at least in the case of those last two, at the behest of the American government.
It’s hard to know if this movie would feel different were it not a true story. It might be criticized for its outlandish plot, which seems too crazy to be true — but it might also come across as less callous. Liman plays Seal’s oafish involvement in this historically-significant illegal operations as comedy, but it’s not very funny — especially if the viewer spends any time thinking about those who were caught in the real-life crossfire.
In American Made‘s characterization, Barry is your classic Chaotic Neutral character. This might not be a problem, if contextualized with any kind of specificity. Instead, the narrative is Chaotic Neutral, too, not bothering to make too fine a point with the story of Barry’s dealings. This movie wants to be Breaking Bad — they even cast an underutilized Jesse Plemmons as an Arkansas Sheriff — but it forgets to include any form of moral agency. What’s left is Forrest Gump… if Forrest were a greedy, over-confident narcissist.
Barry may not be actively evil, but he is a man who is thoroughly unconcerned about how his actions affect others. He is the middleman who thinks his hands are clean because he is never the brains of the operation. He is the man who is given a gun and told to shoot and doesn’t think it’s his fault if someone gets hurt because, hey, he didn’t choose where it was pointed.
Like Breaking Bad, Barry seems to feel justified in his choices because he has a family to (financially) provide for — that ultimate metric of masculinity.
Mainly, this family is represented by Lucy (Sarah Wright, 22 years Cruise’s junior), Barry’s babely wife who yells at Barry whenever he plays fast and loose with their family’s safety, but only enough to earn her status as A Real Spitfire. She’s this movie’s version of the male fantasy “Cool Girl.” Instead of drinking beer and never nagging her husband to pick up after himself, she drinks beer and never nags her husband to stop making unilateral decisions that endanger their children just so he can do cool loop-de-loops with his plane.
Lucy is the latest line in Hollywood’s history of two-dimensional female characters, usually written by men, whose main purpose is to convince the audience that the male protagonist is worth rooting for. It is worth noting that Lucy is the sole female character for most of the movie.
While American Made has seemingly endless founts of sympathy and context to throw in Seal’s direction, it has almost none for J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones), Barry’s brother-in-law, a character who represent the most stereotypical traits of the white Southern man.
Barry and Lucy may have Southern accents, but they are the classy kind of Southern. J.B., however, is the “white trash” kind, and the narrative revels in that distinction. J.B.’s greed is treated as evil because it is clumsy and it is expressed without a wink. J.B.’s greed is also, may it be noted, deemed the larger problem in a scene where it is also implied that he is about to take advantage of a 15-year-old girl.
In American Made, the American dream isn’t just about making money; it’s about making money with a smarmy, white-toothed grin on your face. Yellow-teethed folks with any haircut resembling a mullet need not apply. For an American film industry that has started making films like Logan Lucky, Winter’s Bone, and even Dale and Tucker vs. Evil, it’s a lazy characterization of white poverty.
American Made isn’t unentertaining. Though the movie has an almost two-hour runtime, you will not be bored. Let it never be said that Cruise does not make for a charismatic point-of-view character and narrator. Most of the story is told after-the-fact by Seal as he records video diaries while on the run in 1981-82. We even get fast-paced expository montages featuring maps, arrows, and Cruise’s dulcet, voiceover tones.
However, this rigid point-of-view limits the kind of story American Made can tell without fully embracing the complications of Seal’s subjectivity. Seal doesn’t seem particularly interested in understanding the cultural and political nuances in the different Central American countries he does business in, so neither is the movie. We have so much of the context of Seal’s story, and so little of the context for the non-Americans in this movie. Places like Nicaragua and Panama are interchangeable here, and the people who reside in these places even more so.
Though Spanish is often spoken in the film, it is never subtitled (even when Seal becomes conversational in the language), further creating a division between the white American individuals in his film and the brown Central American masses. The exceptions to this rule are Escobar and the Ochoa brothers, though, at one point, the movie has Barry American-splaining drug trafficking to the Medellin cartel.
It’s a missed opportunity. If American Made isn’t going to play with the line between what is true in Seal’s story and what is his own, ego-driven perspective, then it needs to broaden its context.
Perhaps I am wildly misjudging the aim of this film. Perhaps American Made is not an effort to articulate the hypocrisy at the heart of American foreign policy. Perhaps, instead, it is solely concerned with glorifying the cheap thrills of power, money, and masculinity. If that’s the case, then — as George W. Bush would say — Mission Accomplished.