Looking to lick the wounds of The Mummy, a film that was not only a critical flop, a monetary flop (95 Million dollar loss), but it may have killed Universal’s Dark Universe before it even started. Tom Cruise is hoping everyone forgets about that film as his latest project, American Made hit theaters. Cruise is teaming up again with Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman as they look to bring to life the story of a very controversial figure in the Reagan era War on Drugs, Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who became a drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel. One thing is very important to note here, this is NOT a biopic, even though it is easy to be fooled. Movies that are ‘based on a true story’ still take liberties with their storytelling which I’ll explain later on.
American Made begins in the late 1970s, Barry Seal is a Rockstar pilot who is great at his job but doesn’t live the glorious life he wants to. One day, he meets a CIA agent who notices Barry’s smuggling Cuban cigars into the country. To avoid jail time, he agrees to work for the CIA and take pictures of South America for government recon. Barry, however, gets the attention of the Medellín Cartel who orders him to smuggle drugs into the country for a cash payout. He agrees and suddenly Barry finds himself working in secret for the CIA and the drug cartel while trying to keep his personal life from becoming as volatile as his work life.
I’ll talk about the film first before covering the truth of the story. The film itself is pretty good but has one glaring problem. Once you get past the first act, you are watching a series of events. The story is told as a series of VHS confessionals by Seal. Meaning the pace is rapid and there isn’t much to digest for the audience. Cruise is charismatic where he is comfortable working with Liman again. The character of Barry Seal follows a pattern of films such as The Wolf Of Wall Street and Gold where the lead actor goes from rags to riches in the dirtiest way and celebrates the excess of success. But like these stories, that celebration is short-lived and the harsh reality of dealing with two of the most dangerous organizations in the world catches up to him.
When it comes to how close this story is to the real story, it’s like I said before, this isn’t a biopic and based on a true story doesn’t mean everything happened as told. The real-life details of Barry Seal’s life are much dirtier than the film portrays which is understandable because the movie needs the main character to be likable. They try to make it seem that Barry was simply in over his head while the CIA was calling the shots. In reality, Seal was running drugs and guns as early as the 1950s and was no stranger to government agencies.
While it’s not certain the true extent of Seal’s involvement with the CIA, he had a huge impact on the cocaine trade of the 1980s and had nearly 60 million dollars from all of his runs in South America. By no means was Barry a ‘clean’ guy. Many scenes and characters in the film are added for entertainment value and the details of the Iran-Contra scandal is glossed over right at the end with no real context added to it. This film is truthful of the major events but takes a lot of liberties to portray the story they need.
I really enjoyed the visual style of American Made, Doug Liman deserves credit for experimenting visually with a different genre outside of the action/thriller films we know him for. The editing team is great here as they good job at keeping things moving and not dragging the pace. I couldn’t help, however, to think the story didn’t have the impact it needed, especially with a real-life person like Seal who had a big-time impact on American History.
The choice to play up the humor, but no be over the top as something like Wolf of Wall Street makes the finished product feel disconnected but not unenjoyable for the audience. American Made is a compelling counterpoint to the story of the Medellín era cartel that compares to more serious takes like the Netflix series Narcos.