Bored On The Fourth Of July
♦ Tripwire’s Senior Editor ANDREW COLMAN reviews American Made, the new movie from Tom Cruise…
Director: Doug Liman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson
I’d like to make the claim that this movie is yet another example of the intensifying dumbing down of pop culture – lightweight blockbusters eleven months of the year, with that brief respite when Hollywood devotes itself to earnest, pious, issue-driven, box-ticking Oscar nominees for the remainder.
But leading man Tom Cruise has been making films like this since the 1980s, when his smarmy, shallow, yet winningly all-American persona made sense in certain event flicks that were underpinned by boorish Reaganisms – and for genre with cohesive drama, there were always other options for the cinemagoer. However it’s now 2017, and (the parallel infantilization of the political landscape aside) it’s getting somewhat tougher to locate entertaining, action-orientated films that seamlessly manage subtext and depth. Hell Or High Water is one of the few that springs to mind. Elsewhere, it’s television that rules the roost in that department, where the needs of the demanding viewer are (sometimes) met. Of course for every Fargo or Better Call Saul there’s a Narcos, which is well made but lacks a certain something – that aforementioned subtext and above all, drama.
Set in the late 70s and early 80s, American Made tells the story of Barry Seal, a commercial pilot who lacks the moral fibre to stay on the straight and narrow, preferring to ditch his career for death-defying thrills, spills and certain extinction by accepting recruitment from the CIA for covert surveillance missions in South and Central America. The narrative, told in flashback by Seal through videotapes he carefully assembled, is Goodfellas-lite, our protagonist revelling in the notoriety he had while double-crossing the Agency and forging ties with the Medellin cartel (yes, we’re back in Narcos territory). Balancing his impossibly warped existence with the travails of family life proves to be a knotty problem, but nothing that can’t be handled by evergreen Tom (55 going on 17) with a knowing smile.
There are moments when the film threatens to grab your attention, such as when Seal lands at various hostile airstrips, and the logistics involved in avoiding the DEA on smuggling routes. The money’s all on the screen, with the aerial sequences over rainforest and burnt-out shanty towns a compulsive treat, but the underlying motor of the project never wavers – the absurdity and excess of Seal and his co-opted wife’s (Sarah Wright) lifestyle. It’s all unapologetically rendered, with a distinct lack of the black comedy (so prevalent in Goodfellas, for instance) required to leaven and enhance such an amoral saga.
The context, such as there is, is tenuous and tacked-on – the cartels move to Nicaragua, dovetailing with America’s backing of the anti-Communist contras providing the basis for the Reagan (that man again) administration’s embarrassment when it became clear that they had been in indirect cahoots with drug dealers who had been buying guns from the rebels who had been armed by the CIA in the first place. There’s some sly and rather eerie footage of Ronnie and Nancy in the White House denouncing drugs at the end, which provides the satire the movie desperately needed, but it’s all too little, too late.
It’s of some interest that Cruise has chosen to play such a vapid, shady character, in a film that isn’t all that bothered with characterization (Domhnall Gleeson’s turn as Seal’s CIA overseer Monty Schafer isn’t given any room to breathe, which is a shame). Surely he, like (the far better) Eastwood before him, knows that he can’t continue with such bombastic fare forever, although to his credit, there’s at least more honesty in this enterprise than the hollow, irony-free heroics of Top Gun, the film that made him when he was only 24 going on 17. When he played an equally arrogant, untroubled lead. Who flew planes. It’s certainly plausible that another actor might have brought more much-needed nuance to the role as well.
The Carter / Reagan / Bush era is a period of history that has plenty to be mined – this movie however barely scratches the surface, even if it is at times an amusing ride. It’s just that audiences should expect a wee bit more than a seedy travelogue detailing snapshots of events that had enormous, far-reaching resonance and relevance to today’s dissolute situation. I’m probably asking too much, while the alternative – an Oliver Stone sledgehammer expose, is not something I’d be prepared to sit through. Maybe such a tale cannot be dramatized, and this movie was a fool’s errand. The bravura airborne sections are memorable (there’s actually very little violence in this picture) and the performances are all passable, so there’s always that.
American Made is in UK cinemas from today