The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


American Made

American Made is the latest example of a type of movie that focuses on morally-dubious opportunists who take a risk, find riches beyond their wildest dreams, then watch as their ego-driven success erodes just as quickly as it started. On the low end of this kind of thing, you get Gold, and on the high end, The Wolf of Wall Street. This one falls right in the middle. It's no masterpiece, but it makes a complex story breezy and engaging. If Doug Liman's film is slightly lacking in originality, it makes up for that in energy.

Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, a cocksure airline pilot for TWA. One day, he's approached by a CIA agent, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), with an offer to work for the agency. They want him to take aerial surveillance photos in South America. He's really good at that, but his actions attract the attention of the Medellin drug cartel. Before long, he's working for them, too, bringing drugs back to the States. Playing both sides against the middle yields more money than his home can hold, much to the delight of his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright). The more he does, though, the more everyone asks him to do. Before long, Barry is running guns to the Contras on the CIA's behalf an act that only escalates the danger he's in.

American Made deals with a lot of real late-'70s/early-'80s history, yet plays much of it with a darkly comedic vibe. The humor comes from Barry's almost compulsive desire to bring in as much cash as he possibly can, as well as from his narcissistic belief that he can outsmart both the U.S. government and the world's deadliest cartels. Barry becomes so full of himself that he begins to think he's untouchable. Not even the destined-to-screw-up brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) he brings into the fold can jinx his high. Watching him so shamelessly try to get over everyone else provides some solid laughs.

This is the kind of part Tom Cruise could do in his sleep. Thankfully, he doesn't. The actor finds dark little edges to Barry, particularly the manner in which he relegates Lucy and the kids to second place. Barry loves his family, but he loves the rush of playing a high-stakes game even more. This is one of Cruise's best performances in years, as he makes us feel the attraction to risk his character feels.

Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) brings a nice period style to American Made, occasionally weaving in news footage from the period and incorporating some shots of Barry made to look as though captured on a camcorder. He also keeps the pace brisk, while still ensuring that it's relatively easy to follow the complicated plot. There's a sense of excitement as you wait to see what complication Barry will have to deal with next.

American Made works overall, although it falters on some of the more specific details. Despite being well-played by Cruise, Barry is a bit of a one-note character. There really aren't any moments when he stops to analyze what he's doing or reflect on the implications of his actions. He's largely a full-bore maverick from start to finish. Some different shades would have useful. Additionally, a few of the supporting players are under-utilized. Jesse Plemons is wasted as a small-town sheriff; his role goes nowhere. Sarah Wright (Parks and Recreation), on the other hand, is so terrific as Barry's skeptical-but-complicit wife that you can't help but wish there was a lot more of her to balance out his reckless disregard for everything.

Barry Seal was a real guy who actually did some of the things depicted in the film. American Made inflates his story into something larger-than-life, though. That's okay. Telling this story in a heavily dramatic way would have been too conventional. Liman, Cruise, and screenwriter Gary Spinelli bring a more mischievous approach to it. Their take may not be totally substantive but, despite a few flaws, it's certainly an entertaining look at a man who walks on thin ice with little fear of falling through.

( out of four)

American Made is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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