Barry Seal was a TWA pilot when he was recruited by the CIA to fly reconnaissance missions over Central America to photograph suspected communist rebels. Then he got involved with Manuel Noriega in Panama and the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia. Pretty soon, he’s not only on the radar of the CIA, but of the DEA, the ATF, the Louisiana State Police, and the sheriff of a small town in Arkansas.
All of this gets pretty hard to follow in “American Made,” with Tom Cruise as Seal, but the plot points don’t matter after awhile. Seal is just a pilot who will do whatever it takes to make money, from anyone, even when he starts running out of places to hide all the cash he’s being handed by the various people he’s working for.
Cruise is good in the role, probably the best one he’s had in several years. But if you expect this to be an action movie like his “Mission Impossible” or “Jack Reacher” series, you’re going to be disappointed — there’s not one extended fight sequence in the whole movie.
“American Made” was directed by Doug Liman, whose work I first noticed in 1996’s Jon Favreau/Vince Vaughan classic, “Swingers.” He also did “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” which starred Cruise, too. There’s an interesting connection between “American Made” and part of the story it tells. Liman’s father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Iran-contra scandal in 1987, which involved one Barry Seal and introduced the world to a Marine Lieutenant Colonel named Oliver North. That scandal, and North, and then-president Ronald Reagan, are all part of the plot of the movie.
The best performance in “American Made” comes not from Cruise but from Domhnall Gleason, who played Monty Schafer, which may or may not have been the real name of the CIA officer who devised this whole scheme in the first place. Gleason plays him very straight but with a slight smirk on his face, as if even Schafer can’t believe everything he’s getting away with pushing Seal to do while denying everything.
I’m curious why this movie, which was shot in 2015, wasn’t released until now. I suspect that the filmmakers didn’t feel they explained the story well enough, so they went back and added some VHS-style video footage in which Seal narrates parts of his story. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help much, so when you walk out of the theater, you’ll have as much trouble keeping track of what happened as I did.
I give “American Made” a 7.5 out of 10.