In Top Gun, a young Tom Cruise played an eighties-era pilot in the service of the U.S.A. More than thirty years later, Cruise—still flashing a cocksure facade of pearly whites and aviator shades—goes back to the eighties to portray the real-life pilot Barry Seal, a cynical analog to that previous role. In American Made, the enemy is no longer faceless bad guys in black fighter planes. The hindsight of history reveals a tangled web of black ops and duplicity, with splintered American law enforcement agencies as much at odds with one another as with their chosen targets.
In 1978, a shadowy CIA minder named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) recruits Seal from his mundane job as a TWA pilot to fly spy reconnaissance missions over Central and South America. Seal also serves as a courier between the CIA and general Manuel Noriega in Panama, and it’s there that Seal is conscripted into service by the Medellin cartel of Colombia to smuggle kilos of cocaine into the United States.
The CIA knows about Seal’s side business but doesn’t care because he takes pretty spy photos. When Seal lands on the DEA’s radar, it just allows Schafer to tighten his grip. To escape mounting legal problems, Seal finds himself in the middle of a byzantine arrangement that involves smuggling guns, drugs, and personnel between Colombia, Nicaragua, and Seal’s new CIA-funded airstrip in Mena, Arkansas. The firearms are for the contras in their fight against Sandinista communists, but the contras would rather have drugs to sell and the cartel would rather have the armaments. Meanwhile, half the contras Seal ferries to his Arkansas spread for CIA training end up slipping away.
Beyond illuminating the geopolitical dysfunction of its era, American Made paints a portrait of a man who both has it all and has nothing. Seal rakes in so much money he literally can’t store it all, even after setting up shell companies and new banks all over Mena. He buries cash in the backyard and mixes it with the hay in his horse stable. Seal is a valuable asset until he ceases to be, and his legally precarious positions make his life and possessions ephemeral, subject to the whims of any of his hazardous connections.
Director Doug Liman, who directed Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, plays a bit fast and loose with the facts of Seal’s life for the sake of narrative efficiency and dynamism. The film’s breezy pace also comes at the cost of fleshing out most of the supporting characters, including the quartet of “Snowbird” pilots Seal hires for his illicit operation; a local sheriff in Mena (Jesse Plemons); and Seal’s wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), whose trepidation over her husband’s erratic and egregious behavior dissipates once she starts seeing bags of Benjamins.
Indeed, Seal suffers from a similar lack of background development, instead subsisting on Cruise’s formidable charm and abilities. He fashions Seal as fidgety, bewildered, mischievous, and/or cocky, acting traits well within Cruise’s wheelhouse since, well, Top Gun. Maverick Mitchell is who we want our frontline defenders to look like; Barry Seal is who they often are.