American Made takes place in the years when its star, Tom Cruise, became a household name. Since the Cruise character is a cocky pilot, comparisons to Top Gun are inevitable. Still, a better frame of reference is Risky Business, the coming of age comedy where Cruise played Joel, a high school student who turns his parents’ suburban home into a brothel. Joel might have grown up to be like Barry, the hero of American Made: he starts bored and listless, only to plunge into a world of crime, learning about himself along the way. Whereas Risky Business is low-stakes, American Made uses Barry as entry point into the decade’s greatest espionage failures. Director Doug Liman strikes a glib tone for the material, moving the plot at a steady, cynical clip. It works as a typical rags/riches/rags story, even if the material is maddening once you start to think about it.
When we meet Barry, it is the late 1970s and he is a pilot for TWA. Routines and checklists bore him, so where he creates artificial turbulence on a redeye to amuse himself. Right off the bat, the point of this scene is bizarre: Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli are going for the laugh, as if Barry’s lapse in responsibility means he has a dormant, devil-may-care spirit. My first instinct, however, was to feel bad for the couple hundred passengers who were literally jerked around for Barry’s amusement.
Indeed, every scene is from Barry’s perspective, and the script creates one implausible situation after another where we are meant to feel sympathy. It is easy at first: a CIA spook named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) recruits Barry to fly spy planes over Central America, helping install dictators along the way. This gets the attention of Jorge (Alejandro Edda), a member of the Medellin cartel, so Barry starts running drugs and spying for Uncle Sam at the same time. A small-scale operation soon turns into a full-fledged business, and Barry has so much money he can’t find a proper place to stash it all. Everyone is happy with this arrangement, including Barry’s wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), at least until seemingly every law enforcement agency in the country catches wind of Barry’s scheme.
Barry is a familiar American archetype: the hotshot individualist whose ambition exceeds the limits of the law and morality. You need an actor with charisma, so Cruise is a perfect fit. He has the same toothy smile, embellished by “aw shucks” charm and lovably dim disposition. Schafer and Jorge see right through Barry, so the thrill of American Made is how he eventually realizes he’s the sucker. There are also familiar scenes to any American crime saga: there is the perfunctory sequence where we marvel at Barry’s wealth and success. This has been a genre staple ever since Goodfellas, except Scorsese had the wherewithal to make it seem vulgar. Liman and Spinelli never quiet criticize Barry, except when he starts to fail. There’s nothing more American, really, than hating a loser.
Doug Liman is a good fit for this material because his versatility is unusual. He can handle low-key indie comedy (Swingers), and big budget blockbuster (Edge of Tomorrow). To his credit, Liman finds many ways to make air travel seems exciting. There is a dramatic crash sequence that ends with Cruise as the butt of a broadly comic sight gag. There are multiple chase sequences, and Liman slows them down so we understand just how Barry can escape his pursuers. Another strange formal quality to American Made is how it resembles a home VHS tape: the aspect ratio is boxy, and some sequences have an amateurish, handheld quality to them. Barry’s taped confession is also a framing device, so the image oscillates between crisply filmed jungles and shoddy motels.
Oliver North and Iran-Contra are a major plot point in American Made, and the film treats it like a joke. Admittedly, in some circles the story is a punch line; the Seth MacFarlane cartoon American Dad turned it into a musical number. The difference is that the Dad is a conservative buffoon, whereas Tom Cruise is… Tom Cruise. His persona and star power create an implicit tolerance of the film’s point of view, leaving us with the aftertaste that our country’s biggest scandals amount to little more than a footnote. This film does not reward careful attention, and its shaggy dog approach chips away at any deeper thought or sense of suspense. Soon enough, American Made will have the same legacy as Top Gun and Risky Business: it’ll be passable entertainment when you’re at home, flipping through the channels.