Based on the checkered career of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a pilot who got
involved with both the Medellin drug cartel, transporting their product
to the United States, and with the American intelligence community,
which used him in its clandestine program to overthrow the Sandinista
regime in Nicaragua by arming and training the so-called contras. The
double game eventually got him killed. A great many allegations have been concocted about Seal’s earlier
activities by conspiracy theorists, but Gary Spinelli’s script, based on
several book about the guy, ignores them, beginning only in 1978 when
he is a TWA pilot bored with the routine of his job. Caught smuggling
Cuban cigars, he’s recruited by a CIA agent calling himself Schaefer
(Domhnall Gleeson) to fly risky missions over various Latin American countries in a super-fast spy plane
to photograph rebel groups in their camps, though he conceals the fact
from his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who keeps the home fires
His CIA-sponsored flights bring him—unbeknownst to his handler—to the
attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio
Mejia), up-and-coming drug lords who insist that he add a lucrative
sideline to his operations by taking bales of their cocaine to the U.S.
Though he has doubts about the short runway they insist on his using
and refuses to fly the coke to Miami as they wish, he devises a workable
plan to drop it off in Louisiana and relies on his guts to make it into
the air. The deliveries become a regular part of his making him a rich man without Schaefer being any the wiser.
Both sides of Seal’s operation grow exponentially, and though
setbacks involving the DEA necessitate his moving with his family to a
small town in Arkansas, before long he owns a large tract of land as
well as an airport, hosts a contra training camp run by the CIA, hires a
squadron of oddball fliers, and is so flush with cash that he literally
runs out of room to put it all. Unfortunately, the arrival of his
careless, greedy brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones) throws a
monkey wrench into things, and leads to his being dragged into the
Reagan White House’s efforts to tie the Sandinista regime to the drug
trade as an informant against the cartel—which ultimately not only
brings about his downfall but seals his fate.
Tom Cruise invests Seal
with every bit of energy he can muster, rushing about almost maniacally
as he flashes his trademark smile and rattles off reams of smooth
talk, even under the worst pressure. To tie the escalating complications of the
plot together in a way the audience can understand, director Doug Liman resorts to
various devices—crudely-drawn animated inserts, montages of archival
news footage, and excerpts from a video “confession” prepared by
Cruise’s Seal over his last days, which also allows Cruise’s flyboy to
impress upon us how increasingly wild and crazy the whole chain of
The approach gives the convoluted plot some shape while preserving
the messiness essential to Seal’s habit of escaping trouble by coming up
with some outlandish excuse or absurd seat-of-the-pants decision. The
most outrageous example comes when he’s seemingly trapped in mid-flight
by a couple of DEA planes, only to choose to make a sudden landing in a
suburban neighborhood; it would be an understatement to say that the
episode defies credibility.
That points to the fundamental weakness of American Made: as satire
it seems shallow, even juvenile, more buffoonish clown show than edgy
dissection of real events. It’s not simply that the characters are all
caricatures—that’s part of the natural process of satire, after all.
It’s that they’re not sharply-drawn caricatures. One
could, of course, also grumble that giving a semi-heroic cast to a guy
who made hay ferrying cocaine into the country isn’t such a good idea.
But that would undo a long history of cinema’s glorifying the antihero
Frankly, the machinations surrounding
the Iran-Contra scandal deserve something more than a jokey send-up; but for what it is, though, it earns a marginal pass.