Breezy, then lethal, then back again, the caustic satire “American Made” has a surreal edge. It’s a morbidly fascinating comedy, an insinuating mock documentary, and a twisted take on the American dream, audaciously masquerading as a high-caliber thriller. It’s one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.
The film, reuniting Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman, the duo behind the impressive sci-fi hit “Edge of Tomorrow,” blesses the star with a character study that fits him like a hand-tailored suit covered in stains. Based on the real-life story of Barry Seal, a civilian pilot who became an outrageous footnote in 1980s history, this is one of those increasingly rare beasts: a rousing, thought-provoking, cynical blockbuster. Delivering the kind of arsenic wit we haven’t seen since “Goodfellas,” it explores a world where good and evil exist not only side by side, but usually hand in hand.
It’s a challenging story to tell, a satire with the ring of fact. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and its chaotic aftermath, Seal candidly narrates his own rise and fall, framed through flashbacks and on-camera commentary in old-school VHS video recordings. A talented pilot, he’s ambitious, amoral, immature and none too smart. He’s introduced in his early days as TWA’s youngest pilot, amusing himself on long flights by shaking his plane with make-believe turbulence just to spook the passengers.
Cruise has always been more interesting as a complex, morally compromised antihero than a simple good guy. Here he’s in top form. His raffish, self-mocking take on Seal’s faulty personality is perfectly attuned to the film’s deliberately messy, you-are-there, faded home movie aesthetic. Neither the film nor Seal arrives at any conventional clarity. He’s just the sort of useful idiot that the CIA would recruit in the late Carter and early Reagan eras to make secret flights “below the border and above the Equator.”
Domhnall Gleeson is unflappable as the spook who gives Seal the cover of owning a fictitious aircraft business to conceal government-destabilizing errands. Though Seal doesn’t know El Salvador from Nicaragua, he’s immediately doing spy photography and gun-running AK-47s to Washington’s favorite anti-Communist citizen soldiers of the moment.
To him, trespassing and smuggling is fun. He plays chicken with ground troops trying to shoot him down. Still, it’s not as profitable a business as Seal wants to support his small-town trophy wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright, giving Cruise a lovely comedic foil), and their growing family. So using his excellent smile, limited charm and a good deal of dumb luck, he wheels and deals his way up the contraband tree.
Soon he’s making more cost-effective return flights for Colombian cocaine cartels. Where others would recognize travesty, Seal sees transactions, and his blind-eyed government supervisors notice nothing improper. Lucy at least partly believes she is married to a highly successful transportation executive. She uses their haystack-sized hoards of cash to invite her skeevy brother JB (the ever-weird Caleb Landry Jones) into Seal’s fly-by-night operation, with consequences that are predictable but shocking nonetheless.
Liman crafts countless verbal and visual one-liners. His droll use of Iran-Contra allusions and Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” advice are stiletto-sharp. His staging of Seal surviving a getaway chase involving a plane crash, clouds of white powder and a children’s bike is nothing short of spectacular.
The story zips along at a breakneck pace, watching Seal’s pipe dream collapsing beneath the dark realities, the mistrust and paranoia that comes from a life spent looking over your shoulder. In exchange for more power than he can control and more money than he can launder, he balances both political and financial gain at the cost of countless all-too-real lives.
The conflicted Seal attempts to hold a distance between his actions and their consequences. He seems to be trying to assure himself as much as others of his innocence, but no one is really convinced by the act, himself least of all. As Seal’s dirty hands get filthier, we find ourselves in the awkward position of cheering for his tyrannical client Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), who may be a psychotic drug lord but at least shows some common sense.
It’s a tribute to Cruise’s skill that he makes this uniquely unsympathetic character not evil, just human. It’s a scalding truth that “American Made” flings at us with cool composure.