Tom Cruise never gives his megawatt movie-star grin a rest, but, for the moment, he truly has something to smile about. After The Mummy handed the actor the most humbling flop of his career this summer, he's back in top form — Top Gun form, you might even say. Watching him streak through the sky as real-life TWA pilot-turned-government-sanctioned-smuggler Barry Seal, one all but expects the first line out of his mouth to be "I feel the need for speed!"
Which, coincidentally, is one of a long list of illicit substances that Seal did feel the need to fly in and out of the U.S., according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency records. Speed. Weed. Ludes. Blow. Stuff to blow up other stuff (plastic explosives). AK-47s. He was a busy guy. And, yes, a maverick. See what I just did there?
The latest from Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow), American Made is a factually freewheeling film and the most entertaining Cruise vehicle in many a moon. Seal was real. The Seal that Cruise gives us, though, bears only a superficial resemblance to the Reagan-era drug runner. This dude is fun.
No matter how dire the historical context. It's a fact that the gifted Louisiana-born pilot flew 707s for TWA until 1972. Virtually everything that happens after the picture's 10-minute mark, however, is pure Hollywood. Imagine Entertainment didn't pay screenwriter Gary Spinelli $1 million because he's great at cutting and pasting from Wikipedia.
Cruise plays Seal as a hunky adrenaline junkie recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to fly over Central America and photograph rebel activity. For all the excitement the job provides, it doesn't provide particularly well for his family. Seal doesn't think of refusing when cartel head Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) offers $2,000 for every kilo of coke he flies into the States.
The real Seal made daily deposits of $50,000 to his Honduran account through the early '80s. The filmmakers show him frantically burying duffle bags of cash in his backyard until he runs out of room because, well, that's funnier. Liman and Cruise want the audience to have a good time watching Seal play one side against the other. So comic scenarios are concocted out of whole cloth. In the film, for example, Seal pays regular visits to Manuel Noriega to pick up intel and deliver government payoffs. In real life, he may have used one of Noriega's runways.
Nonetheless, American Made is an undeniably good time. It's briskly paced and amusingly absurdist. Cruise has rarely been as magnetic, perhaps because he's portraying a human being and not the kind of bulletproof action figure he's played for most of the past two decades. One thing the film isn't, though, is thoughtful.
Even when Seal finds himself at the center of what would become the Iran-Contra scandal or is saved from jail by a last-minute call from president Bill Clinton, Liman and co. never pause to give events time to take on meaning. While that's a legitimate artistic choice, it's also a missed opportunity.
It's fine to make a screwball comedy with government agencies running in circles like bureaucratic Marx Brothers. But I can't help imagining what this movie might have been if Liman had cut the engine occasionally, allowing viewers a moment to reflect on its ominous mix of Hollywood and history.
With all the talk of making the country great again these days, we could use a wake-up call. Liman's film almost offers an unsettling reminder of the nightmare "Morning in America" often was.