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American Made Is an Iran–Contra Movie That Gets High on Its Own Supply

The new movie is one that director Doug Liman has been making for 15 years and Tom Cruise has been making for almost 35.

Tom Cruise in American Made.
Tom Cruise in American Made.
Universal Pictures

American Made is a movie that Doug Liman has been making, in one form or another, for the last 15 years. After breaking through with Swingers and Go, Liman made the leap to studio movies in 2002 with The Bourne Identity, which he personally convinced pulp titan Robert Ludlum to let him adapt—and returned the favor by chucking out most of the novel except for its premise. The mechanics of Operation Treadstone, the “deep state” program that trained and deployed covert assassins like Jason Bourne, were taken not from Ludlum but the Iran–Contra affair, details uncovered in a Senate investigation whose chief counsel was Liman’s father, Arthur. Although Bourne became a franchise-spawning hit, Liman was ousted from the series after clashing with the studio, and he’s been circling back to the subject of spycraft ever since. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Fair Game, and the USA series Covert Affairs don’t overlap much in terms of tone: One’s a dark comedy, one a sober docudrama, one a glossy TV thriller. But they’re commonly preoccupied with the work that gets done in the shadows and the toll it takes on the people who carry it out.

American Made at last faces Iran–Contra head-on, although it still takes its time getting there. Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot whose thirst for excitement isn’t slaked by commuter runs and the odd bit of Cuban cigar smuggling. He’s got a steady income and a beautiful blond wife (Sarah Wright), which in 1978 is about all that’s expected of him, but his longing for more is quietly verging on desperation. During one overnight flight, he waits until his co-pilot nods off and puts the plane into a dive violent enough to make the oxygen masks deploy. It’s a gamble to have your protagonist act so early in the film like an unvarnished sociopath, but Cruise grins all the way through it as if he knows we can’t help but love him.

More daring than he is smart, Barry quickly comes to the notice of the CIA, personified by Domhnall Gleeson’s Schafer. But Schafer isn’t looking for a small-time arrest: He’s looking for a partner. The U.S. government needs someone to ferry arms to the Contras, the Nicaraguan rebels opposed to the communist Sandinistas, and Barry has the skills and the moral flexibility the task requires. Before long, he’s running cocaine for what will become the Medellín cartel and pulling in so much cash he’s run out of places in his backyard to bury it. It’s remarkably easy for Barry to become instrumental in a string of illegalities that eventually stretch all the way to the White House simply by never stopping to examine what he’s involved in.

Barry is the closest thing Tom Cruise has played to a regular Joe in more than a decade, and the part isn’t a snug fit. The real Barry Seal was paunchy and balding, but Cruise plays him as a charismatic hotshot. It’s fitting that American Made’s time frame, which spans from 1978 to 1986, overlaps with the beginning of Cruise’s on-screen stardom. With his cocky grin and metal-rimmed sunglasses, Barry acts like a guy who’s seen a few too many Tom Cruise movies. And maybe we have, too. Cruise has had an impressive, if not unblemished, track record at the box office in recent years, but it’s come at the price of vastly curtailing the kinds of roles he’s played. In American Made, as in The Mummy, it feels like Cruise is playing a part written for someone at least a decade younger (Seal was 46 at the point where the movie’s story ends; Cruise is 55), and he doesn’t seem able to connect with the character’s human foundations. His scenes opposite Wright are consistently among the movie’s weakest, especially since her character barely exists beyond a shapely outline in the script. And although they eventually have two children, Cruise barely exchanges a dozen words with either of them.

From its opening sequence, a sign-of-the-times montage so overstuffed it encroaches on the studio logos beforehand, American Made wants to put us in Barry’s head: a place of perpetual frenzy where saying no to an opportunity is never an option. Barry doesn’t sample the product too much—although he does at one point end up covered in cocaine, frantically peddling a children’s bicycle through a suburban housing tract—but the movie gets high on its own supply. It’s like the “What Is Life” montage from Goodfellas stretched to feature length, even if Liman picks out a different song from All Things Must Pass.

The insistent pace becomes exhausting, especially when coupled with Liman’s penchant for switching pell-mell between resolutions and camera types. One second you’re taking in a pleasing wide shot, then you’re looking at a shuddering GoPro with the characters barely in frame. It’s as if he spent a lifetime storing up material and wanted to cram it all in. There’s a desperation at the movie’s core, a morbid terror of losing the audience’s attention, so Liman loads up the soundtrack with classic rock and crams in a cartoon explainer of Cold War politics. But he doesn’t leave any room for the viewer to cultivate his or her own relationship to the story, and that robs the movie of moral weight.

American Made is an end-of-the-line movie for both American exceptionalism and one of its most exceptional movie stars. Barry gets by for a long time on quick wit and charm, but you know his days are numbered; he narrates the story from a cheap motel at the end of the movie’s timeline, so it’s only a question of when, not if, his luck will run out. Cruise is running on fumes, too, tapping his emergency stores of boyish charm—a state of affairs American Made both reckons with and kicks against. His country has deeper reserves to draw on, but goodwill isn’t inexhaustible. And as with so many other things, they don’t make it in the U.S. anymore.

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