Cruise at the controls makes flying fun

The Movie Nut


This movie comes with a relentless pace, a consistently positive attitude and a determination not to let its theme of moral compromise get in the way of telling an entertaining story.

A light and implausible tale of adventure with snippets of comedy and drama thrown in along the way, “American Made” is a Tom Cruise movie and he is, as usual, charming and fully energized.

The fact that his character’s tale is true is both its strength and its weakness.

This is the story behind the clandestine actions and covert activities that led to the Iran-Contra Affair, and there is craziness in here that, as they say, “you just can’t make up.”

But director Doug Liman’s father was chief counsel for the Senate’s investigation of that scandal in 1986, and Liman clearly feels an obligation to honor his father’s legacy.


That adds unneeded complexity to the script. In trying to make sure we meet all the principal characters and understand the historical significance of what took place, the plot seems overinflated.

Rich, hypersaturated colors, fearless flying and vintage music ground this film in the ’80s, the Cold War years—before GPS, satellite coverage and cellphones. Today’s technology would make it impossible to get away with what’s going on; here, pay phones just add to the fun.

There’s a lot of humor in here and it emerges naturally out of the story

Overall, it feels like a return to the Wild West playing out in the wild blue yonder, where the good guys aren’t necessarily the smart guys, and several “gangs”—the FBI, CIA, DEA, ATF, the White House—can neither “shoot straight” nor stay out of each other’s way.

But up in the air, there’s a cowboy at the controls.

His name is Barry Seal (Cruise) and he’s a pilot for TWA who has a growing family and needs to earn more money. He gets his chance when “Schafer” (Gleeson) recruits him to work for the CIA. He gives Seal his own plane and an ultrasecret assignment: Fly low over Central America and take pictures of “the Communist enemies of democracy.”

A chance meeting with Jorge (Alejandro Edda) in Colombia makes things more complicated— and far more lucrative.

Soon, he’s taking pictures for the CIA while flying cocaine into the U.S. for the forerunner of the Medellin cartel. Then he’s flying arms to the cartel, picking up cocaine and providing it to the Contras. Then he’s shuttling Contras in and out of the U.S.

He needs to build a small air force to help out.

He’s on everyone’s hit list, but the money is unbelievable. When his wife tells him the bag of cash he’s buried in their backyard has broken and there are bills flying around the yard, he says, “I’ll rake them up in the morning.”

Virtually every character in here is a bit of an amoral scoundrel; each is played with a sense of self-confident swagger.

As the trophy wife who becomes her husband’s supporter and partner, Wright brings steely Southern charm to the role of Lucy. As Seal’s CIA recruiter, Gleeson is the ultimate “company man;” he’s oily and often funny in an underwritten role.

In small roles, Edda gives a sense of playfulness to Jorge, Seal’s contact who keeps showing up. And Jayma Mays, as Arkansas lawyer Dana Sibota, is briefly terrific.

But for Cruise, Seal is one of his more ambivalent roles, and he finds the right balance between family values and business amorality. We like him in spite of what he’s doing. He makes us believe he’s just a gringo with an airplane who’s in over his head, delivering with guts and a grin.

We fear his days are numbered, but we hope he gets out of it alive because . . . hey, he’s Tom Cruise.

This isn’t a great movie; it feels a bit too long and stuck in several ruts of redundancy. A subplot with JB (Caleb Landry Jones) is unnecessary. But there is plenty of action and humor and—if you’re interested—a history lesson.

Summer’s over, but if you want another bite of popcorn-munching entertainment, Cruise has this airplane . . .