The 1980s seem to be the decade of nostalgic choice at the moment. With “Stranger Things” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Americans” all paying homage to the style and attitudes about the times, that trend continues with director Doug Liman’s “American Made.”
Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal. He’s a commercial airline pilot with a yearning for danger and excitement. When he’s approached by CIA operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures over rebelling Central American countries, a series of events leads him to the drug empires, the Contras and a personal fortune that threatens to doom him with every branch of the US government.
The film is a lot of fun as we see Barry’s illegal deeds escalate over the story. It does a good job of building dramatic tension through Seal’s riskier and riskier behavior.
There is always a lingering sense however that we know that most of the story presented to us is fictionalized and dramatized. The real Barry Seal does not look like Tom Cruise. Nor did he have a wife who looks like Sarah Wright or a perfect family. Nor was he so personable and charismatic in his run-ins for and against the law. The lack of belief in the possibility of the narrative holds the story back somewhat, but if you just take it as a well-told spy story and throw logic to the wind, the experience is enjoyable.
Much in the same vein of similar stories like “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Goodfellas”, the film glorifies crime as an American ideal. Filmmakers see the 1980s as an era of capitalism run-amok and this film fits in well with that nuance. Whether or not that is necessarily true is up to interpretation.
While the film is not the most original story in terms of narrative, it is fun to watch and experience. As confidence in the United States government continues to erode, stories like “American Made” and the issues it represents seem to grow greater significance.