Among its many virtues, Doug Liman’s relentlessly entertaining American Made operates as a stealth critique of Top Gun, the blockbuster that permanently elevated Tom Cruise to the top of the Hollywood food chain. Released in 1986, Top Gun is properly considered a standard bearer for the Reagan Era, a gleaming recruitment tool made with the full support of the Pentagon, which offered a deep discount on the use of its warplanes and aircraft carriers. Ostensibly, the film is about an arrogant, iconoclastic fighter pilot — nicknamed “Maverick,” in case his go-it-alone spirit wasn’t clear enough — who learns to humble himself in time to defeat the Soviets in a real dogfight. Yet Maverick was never really a patriot, or even a born-again patriot. He’ll always be understood as the thrill-seeker who feels “the need for speed” and likes to “buzz the tower,” who gets off on his own aerial virtuosity.
Now over 30 years later, Cruise again plays a hotshot flyboy in American Made, a stranger-than-fiction yarn about Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to fly reconnaissance missions over South America, but winds up freelancing as a courier to Manuel Noriega, a cocaine smuggler for the Medellín Cartel, and a gun-runner for the Contras in their fight against the Sandinistas. His career change makes him tens of millions of dollars, but greed isn’t a motivating factor. The CIA lures him into its covert, proxy fight against the Commies in South and Central America, but politics are of zero interest to him. He rubs elbows with mass murderers on a regular basis and doesn’t appear to give so much as a moment’s thought to the moral implications of serving them. He just doesn’t care.
Barry Seal is Maverick at middle age, an unreformed adventurer and lovable dum-dum whose only consistent value is abhorring boredom. In an early scene in American Made, Seal gets so tired of the enervating routine of babysitting a commercial airplane on autopilot that he makes his own turbulence to wake up his co-pilot, send a shiver of panic through the cabin, and feel some sense of danger again. He makes a little money on the side smuggling Cuban cigars from his Canadian routes, but it’s not enough to satisfy him, nor is the drudgery of a nice house in Baton Rouge, a beautiful wife and family, and a stable job with benefits. He needs to do something reckless and stupid to fully himself again. He needs to do a 4G inverted dive two meters from a MiG-28, and needs to take a Polaroid while he’s at it. He’s Maverick.
Liman directed Edge of Tomorrow, one of the most entertaining films of Cruise’s career, and his remarkable dexterity as an action filmmaker was established earlier in The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But his most crucial contribution to American Made is a lightness of tone, which synchs up with his insight into Seal’s true motives, which wouldn’t be served by the gravity that usually attends docudramas about the Iran-Contra affair or the Medellín Cartel or Ronald Reagan’s initiatives in the war on drugs and the fight against Soviet influence. Once Seal gets his operation going at full steam, the film has the coked-up freneticism of the final act of GoodFellas, but none of the bad vibes. He’s having the time of his life — and so are we — right up until the fun is abruptly over.
After swiftly establishing the city-to-city grind of Seal’s job as a TWA pilot in the late 1970s, Liman has him whisked away by a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) who offers him a speedy two-engine surveillance plane to fly reconnaissance missions over communist insurgent areas in South and Central America. Seal’s willingness to take fire for the rush of it results in amazing photographs, but his frequent missions attract the attention of Medellín Cartel, which is struggling to meet U.S. demand for cocaine. The CIA reluctantly turns a blind eye to this freelance project, but it does insist on moving Seal, his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), and their two children to the remote backwater of Mena, Arkansas. Once there, the CIA expands his duties to include secret gun shipments to the Contras of Nicaragua, which winds up feeding into his business with the cartel. At a certain point, he’s raking in so much cash that his accounts, suitcases, closets, and backyard can’t contain it all.
Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow went some distance in loosening Cruise up, as the Groundhog Day routine of dying constantly and repeating the same routine naturally chips away at his default hyper-intensity. American Made goes all the way, turning Cruise into a hick antihero who’s constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously. Seal’s impulsiveness becomes a guiding principle for the film, which flies by the seat of its pants right alongside him. At worst, a certain shapelessness sets in, because Seal’s operation grows and changes so rapidly, but then again, the film gains in spontaneity for not following the true-life thriller playbook.
American Made delivers so much as rambunctious entertainment that it’s easy to miss the film’s withering assessment of American foreign policy during the Reagan years. The CIA shares Seal’s amorality — and tolerates his cocaine-smuggling, “Just Say No” be damned — and takes no responsibility for its blunders in backing Contra “rebels” who want U.S. money more than revolution. If Barry Seal is a stand-in for Maverick and Top Gun epitomizes ’80s America, then American Made is about the abhorrent practice of meddling destructively around the globe and taking none of it seriously. In order to cast ourselves as the hero, we create our own turbulence.