American Made (aka Mena) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
American Made is the type of film that tries harder to portray that messy and immoral actions of the drug trade and contra training as more amusing than depressing. Barry Seal was one such figure caught up in the struggle because of his stupidity, greed, and cockiness. He records himself in the twilight days of his career, realizing his death is imminent in the hands of a cartel. In these recordings, his smile is still present, remarking that America is the best damn country in the world. Well, you know, for a country that screws you over when things go south.
So the familiar story goes, Barry (Tom Cruise) was a 1970s commercial pilot that made some extra money on the side by smuggling Cuban cigars. He is soon contacted by CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) about working with the CIA to fly over Central America and snap some photos of potential threats. The CIA will supply Barry with his own flight agency and jet. He can accept the job or they throw him in prison. Naturally, he takes the position, not thinking twice about the CIA’s lame name for the business that is a backward anagram of CIA. He gets shot at a few times, but, hey, he gets a cool plane.
Eventually, Barry is discovered by Central American cartels, and they give him some options: smuggle cocaine into America for them or die. Naturally, he takes the job and ends up making more money. After all, the CIA is trying to keep their hands clean of Barry, instantly prepared to deny any involvement with Barry’s dealings. New plans come in from the CIA: train contras secretly in a US town or go to prison. New plans from the cartel: smuggle more cocaine or suffer a quick death. Nobody can help Barry. He is trapped. But, wow, does he look like he’s having too much fun to notice, right? Nothing says fun like crashing a plane full of cocaine in a neighborhood and making your getaway on a bike with powder all over your face.
Barry has a family, but they serve as little more than side attractions and outside reasons for him to keep going. I couldn’t help but think of how Martin Scorsese would direct stories of figures that rise and fall, treating the families as real people and giving at least one shot to focus on the fact that children are innocent observers of our bad behavior. Doug Liman’s direction forces them far into the background, acting as something for Barry to throw money at. His wife (Sarah Wright) demands appliances for their new home, and he literally throws wads of cash at the situation. His brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) presents a problem with his indigent expenses and illegal activity, but Barry tries to solve the problem with more money.
Parts of this farce work, even if I didn’t want them to. There’s a lot of humor that Liman tries to evoke out of Barry’s wild story and some of it is amusing. Barry has his moments where the farce becomes so over-the-top you have to laugh a little, if only to shake the unpleasant feeling of cartels and the CIA running our country no regard for human life. There is so much money coming in that Barry has to launder it within new businesses and bury it in the backyard. The cartels begin to accept him as one of their own and invite Barry and his wife to crazy parties. The local authorities are sniffing around Barry’s activities, leading to them all converging at once to arrest him.
Despite how much fun this sounds, including a scene where Barry and his wife have sex while piloting a plane, it all plays on a reasonably predictable track. There are the expected highs and the dour lows of such a story, all told with that trademark Tom Cruise grin. Barry Seal’s story is a wild one, but perhaps not as fun as Liman or Cruise wants us to believe. Rather than question the idiocy that led to this messy operation of drugs, contras, and cartels, American Made seems content to just kick back its feet and marvel at the craziness of it all. There’s a sick feeling that washed over me at the end of the picture, and it’s not just the corruption presented in the film; it’s the filmmaking that treats inept leadership of real stories of real lives ruined with farcical tones, all set to the tune of the 1970s greatest hits.