When Tom Cruise’s Barry Seal crashes a small airplane full of drugs into a suburban house, covering his entire body in cocaine in the process, American Made somehow makes drug smuggling look fun. Typical Barry! A likable pseudo-villain bumbling his way out of a dicey situation on other people’s graces, or in this case, on a teenager’s bicycle.
That’s American Made in a nutshell: crazy, fun, and often entertaining. But because it plays up one of the CIA’s supposed “darkest secrets” for laughs, the film often feels like a bizarre string of stunts with no moral center. It wants to have the amoral ruminations of Wolf of Wall Street but is mostly Tom Cruise having fun. Cruise is still great, but nothing in the movie really sticks quite like the cocaine that coats his body after that plane crash.
American Made tells a lesser-known true(ish) story tangentially related to Pablo Escobar’s infamous reign as a leader in the Medellín drug cartel, which at its peak provided 80 percent of all cocaine coming into the United States. Barry Seal is the disgraced TWA pilot hired to smuggle cocaine into the States with his tiny plane, and along the way, he conducts a bunch of other illegal flights, sometimes for the CIA and eventually even for the White House.
American Made’s story escalates at a bewildering pace as Barry goes from a simple airline pilot sneaking cigars to the “gringo that always delivers” several hundred pounds of cocaine in a single flight.
A CIA agent named Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) first employs Barry Seal to take surveillance photos in South America after he’s fired for the cigars. Barry’s later arrested for working with the Cartel, which drags him deeper and deeper into a convoluted progression of pilot jobs that sees him delivering weapons to communist rebels, bringing more and more drugs to the U.S., and even smuggling revolutionaries back to the United States for training.
Schafer moves Barry from Louisiana to Arkansas and gives him tons of land, a bag full of money, and his own airport. Barry’s the luckiest guy in the world, narrowly avoiding the DEA to eventually becoming the wealthiest man in a new town.
In its middle, American Made suffers some growing pains as it tries really hard to be a hillbilly Wolf of Wall Street. Barry has a beautiful trophy wife (played by Sarah Wright, who is 22 years Cruise’s junior, by the way) and more money than he knows what to do with.
You can’t help but also think of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who sold his soul to a life of crime and couldn’t launder his mountain of cash fast enough. Barry Seal could work with people like Heisenberg and Jordan Belfort to make a quick buck, but he’s too naive and good-natured to ever make their descent into evil.
American Made owes a lot to these “decent guy gone bad” stories, chief among them Lord of War (2005), in which Nicolas Cage plays an international arms dealer providing weapons for the government in secret, all inspired by an actual arms dealer. Cage’s Yuri Orlov is the uber-serious version of an arms dealer, whereas Barry Seal is the goofball — they both get bailed out of jail by a government that needs them to do bad things.
But when Barry starts working for the White House, it’s enough to make your head spin. How did a goofy pilot from Louisiana come to fly covert missions for the President to collect evidence against drug cartels?
Cruise has a lot of fun in American Made despite the gallons of sweat pouring from his body when in the South American heat. Barry Seal might be a charismatic anti-hero, but he’s also kind of an idiot. He doesn’t acquire all this wealth because he’s smart or particularly ambitious. He’s socially graceful with a lot of luck, and that’s about it.
It helps to humanize Barry when he messes up. In one case, a pilot he hires falls asleep mid-flight. Rather than get angry and make things worse, Barry laughs it off and improvises, nudging the guy’s plane with his own to wake him up. Barry Seal would rather smile and smooth things over than initiate a confrontation, but partially because that’s all Cruise ever does in American Made, the whole thing feels almost bored. We see the same shot of Barry drinking tequila with drug lords over and over while never getting drunk. He just keeps smiling, even when his wife has a mental breakdown as DEA agents tear his house apart.
We admire Jordan Belfort’s tenacity, brilliance, and astounding tolerance for drugs in Wolf of Wall Street, but other than Cruise’s boyish charm, there’s not much to the hapless Barry Seal. American Made wants us to like Barry in this weird story because he’s fun, but because he’s supplying some of the most corrupt and violent institutions in the world, you can’t help but wonder if the story could have used less comedy.
Was it all worth it for the wild ride for Barry Seal? Tom Cruise and American Made sure want us to think so, but beyond laughing at Barry’s antics, there’s not much more to American Made.
American Made hits theaters on on September 29.
If you liked this article, check out this video on when the CIA illegally drugged thousands of U.S. and Canadian citizens.