Based on the real life story of Barry Seal, an American commercial pilot is hired by the CIA to fly spy planes over enemy territories. Though allegiances become murky when Seal opportunistically conducts a drug smuggling ring on the side.
1 hour, 55 minutes
September 29, 2017
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Composer: Christophe Beck
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
Genre: Action, Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama, History, Thriller
It’s American made, but it appears it’s not America first, with this film being released in a vast array of other countries before the United States gets its chance to have a peek. Despite its oddly ordered theatrical release dates, it hasn’t dampened the anticipation for director Doug Liman’s next film. Heavily involved with the Bourne series, and responsible for the surprise hit, Edge of Tomorrow, Liman works alongside Tom Cruise once again, though this time he tries his hand at a true story. Having proven himself in the action genre, one can easily assume that American Made will make for an entertaining night, though can Liman balance the story with the darker moments of drug smuggler Barry Seal’s biographical account?
Violence/Scary Images: Characters are shot at or otherwise threatened with guns. There are numerous assaults. An explosion occurs and there’s some blood splatter seen. The pilots are frequently careless when flying their planes – some viewers may find their maneuvers reminiscent of terrorist attacks.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped every other minute of the film (if I could hazard a guess, I’d say it’s easily over sixty times all up). The s-word and a few of the lighter swears are uttered multiple times. God’s name is also used in vain a few times.
Drug/Alcohol References: Well, it is a film about cocaine smuggling! Surprisingly none of the characters are seen sampling the product, so despite the subject matter, there’s little to no actual drug use. Characters smoke cigarettes and consume alcohol, though not to excess.
Spiritual Content: The criminals ironically wear crucifixes and have faith that God will look out for them while they commit dangerous acts. One character is said to find God, though it is only mentioned, not shown. There is a fair amount of religious iconography.
Sexual Content: There are a few brief sex scenes, with one being a montage. They are bold and upfront, but there’s no actual nudity. A woman is seen in skimpy lingerie. There are some streakers – the backsides of both male and females are seen, with blink-and-you-miss-it nudity, particularly with male genitalia.
Other Negative Content: Numerous crimes are depicted: drug smuggling, weapon smuggling, and money laundering. However, that begins to pale in comparison to the government corruption witnessed. Some may describe this film as being anti-American due to its negative views on government policy.
Positive Content: The film displays a strong family unit that decides to stay together despite all the setbacks.
American Made is an entertaining look into the morally grey life of Barry Seal. Complacent with his job as a commercial pilot, he leaps at the opportunity to serve his country by taking on missions organized by the CIA. The catch is he has to keep his tasks under the radar, both figuratively and literally. Wrapped up in a government conspiracy and already teetering on the edge of the law, it doesn’t take much for Seal to abuse the situation further and make more money on the side by trafficking drugs. This is certainly an interesting true story that brings up many issues regarding government corruption and its exploitation of an American citizen.
As a simple summary, American Made is a good film. The cinematography maintains a fun atmosphere, the editing is flashy, the dialogue is witty, and Tom Cruise does a great job. Is it an Oscar-worthy performance? No. He doesn’t necessarily stretch himself too far in this role, as the character’s personality has a lot of similarities with Cruise’s natural level of energy. That’s not a criticism of Tom Cruise’s acting; it’s actually a compliment to the casting director. Cruise fits the role and plays the part with a bit more nuanced than what we usually see from him, but if you’re expecting a wild, Leonardo DiCaprio-level personality change, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
So if you want to be entertained for almost two hours, then American Made will certainly cater to your needs. However, it’s a film that you watch and almost immediately forget about straight afterward. It lacks resonance. Plenty of films don’t need to be deep or mulled over for days after the fact, but American Made gives the impression that it wants to elicit some kind of response from its audience. There are a few reasons why this film ultimately falls a bit flat in regards to its longevity.
When it comes to the true crime genre, American Made plays by the usual rules at its core, but it’s fairly different in a few ways. For starters, it’s rather light in its tone. While not a true comedy, it has humorous elements and the film is rather energetic and vibrant, much like Catch Me If You Can. Yet unlike the Spielberg hit, there’s little in way of lament or deeper emotion.
Indeed, the bell curve is not strong in American Made. In this genre, it’s common for the protagonist to start from a low point in their lives, only to reach the highest of highs at the peak of their criminal career, before crashing horrendously. With it’s lighter tone and avoidance of grittier themes, American Made’s crash is soft. The story emotionally plateaus partway through the middle. While it’s oddly enjoyable to observe the fun and games of the criminal world, too much of a good thing lulls the audience into an apathetic mood.
American Made lacks forward momentum. There’s no ‘one last heist’ cliché as seen in Don’t Breathe. Barry Seal also doesn’t seem to need the money, unlike the main characters in Logan Lucky. No one’s even forcing him to commit the crimes against his will, not like in Baby Driver. While it’s great that American Made is different in this respect, and is somewhat limited by the real-life events as well, without these elements the narrative lacks the high stakes that it needs to get the audience invested at a deeper level. There was only one point in the movie where I genuinely feared for Barry’s life, and that was only in the final act.
It also doesn’t help that Barry Seal isn’t an overly likable character. He shares many relatable qualities, though he is an opportunist and shows little remorse for some of his actions. This is where some Christians may come across a few ethical dilemmas. The crime or heist genre famously hasn’t been compatible with the faithful community, with many claiming that these types of films glorify illegal conduct. Yet since the vast majority of these tales traditionally feature that horrendous crash for the ‘hero’ in the third act, I personally find these movies balance out the portrayal of criminality with a message of ‘crime doesn’t pay.’
That is also true with American Made, as in it’s certainly not going to win anyone over to a life of drug smuggling! Yet the film still doesn’t address Barry Seal’s willingness to exploit the current situation. He is the type of guy where if he were presented with an opportunity to shoplift, knowing there was nobody looking and there were no consequences, he would most likely take up the offer. The movie doesn’t confront the issues associated with that sinfully opportunistic, ‘it benefits me, therefore, it’s good’ outlook on life. The lives that he negatively impacts are never shown or mentioned. Seal never feels any guilt. There are also no other characters that operate as a Jiminy Cricket-esque type conscience. His family is largely ignorant about his illegal dealings, while other support roles are either turning their eyes away or are alongside him in the business. The film might not be pro-crime, though it could pass for pro-exploitation.
Yet the greatest criticism against American Made may also be its biggest strength. The most fascinating aspect of this story, and why it may have been selected for a silver screen adaptation, is because it loves to frolic amongst a greyscale of morality as opposed to strictly remaining within the confines of black and white. If American Made were to have a deeper theme, then it isn’t merely ‘crime doesn’t pay’, but rather it questions as to who is corrupting whom?
To talk about Barry Seal’s drug dealings is to ignore half of the story. The American Government is the other major presence in this film, one that also looks at morally grey situations with opportunistic fervor. It could be argued that they hired Barry Seal for his exploitative personality, effectively, in turn, exploiting the situation in a much grander scale. There is a really interesting power play as to who is making the most out of the arrangement. This is where American Made might actually be the most cleverly titled film of the year – how much of Barry Seal’s eventual downfall was due to his nature, and how much was nurtured by the experimentation of the United States Government?
So there are some deeper themes present if one wishes to dig for them, though they mostly unfold within the last five minutes. For the majority of the film, it’s a light-hearted ride. American Made is a perfectly serviceable film if you’re looking for a good night out; it’s humorous, features some action scenes, and it’s just, in general, an interesting real-life story. While it’s different from others of its kind since it’s more morally grey in color than usual, don’t expect a spectacular example of the genre. It’s good, but just a cut above average.
+ Low on violence for its genre.
+ Tom Cruise nicely cast.
+ Light-hearted and fun.
+ An interesting true story.
- Possibly too light-hearted!
- The narrative plateaus in the middle.
- It doesn't condemn the attitude behind the illegal activity shown.