Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has a trenchant joke that encapsulates the fundamental arrogance of so much American war cinema: “American foreign policy is horrendous ’cause not only will America come to your country and kill all your people, but what’s worse, I think, is that they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.” Doug Liman’s American Made, a rollicking comedy based on the drug-smuggling, gun-running, contra-funding exploits of C.I.A.-backed pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), represents a discomfiting corollary: Not only will America attempt to destabilize your country with insidious covert ops, they’ll come back decades later and make a movie about how much fucking fun it was.
Liman, working from a Black List screenplay by Gary Spinelli, plays fast and loose with the details of Seal’s life, starting with the casting. A bulky, Southern good ol’ boy with a fondness for Snickers bars in real life, Seal resembled a young Joe Don Baker but is played here by the former Sexiest Man Alive in a role that serves as an ironic twist on Cruise’s iconic performance in Tony Scott’s Top Gun. If Maverick was the brash, bold face of American military hegemony, Seal, a T.W.A. pilot turned C.I.A. bagman, represents the seedy underbelly of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Where Maverick felt “the need for speed,” Seal evades capture by flying so slowly and for so long that the D.E.A. planes tailing him have no choice but to turn around and refuel.
In American Made, Seal is recruited by a shadowy intelligence officer named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take aerial reconnaissance photos in Central America. He quickly moves up the ranks, serving as a courier between the C.I.A. and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and later running guns to assist the contras in their attempts to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista-led government. All the while, he’s working up a lucrative side business smuggling vast quantities of cocaine for the Medellin cartel. When his drug-trafficking empire eventually attracts the heat of various law-enforcement agencies, Seal strikes a deal with the Reagan administration: In exchange for a vastly reduced sentence, he will take photos implicating the Sandinistas in the drug trade. The fact that it was the contras, not the Sandinistas, who were intimately wrapped up in the cocaine trade made no difference: The photographs served as useful propaganda. But their release spelled the end for Seal, who not long after was murdered by the cartel.
Liman directs Seal’s rise and fall as a zippy, can-you-believe-this-shit comedy in the style of The Big Short, complete with animated explainers, jagged editing, and shaky, documentary-style camerawork. Liman may effectively maintain a madcap energy through to the end, but unlike Adam McKay or Martin Scorsese—whose giddily comprehensive crime epics are another clear reference point—he isn’t all that interested in explicating the complex inner workings of vast criminal enterprises. He just wants to have a good time. Thus, and notwithstanding the faux-realism of its handheld cinematography, the film largely eschews any sense of verisimilitude in favor of wacky comedy bits like Seal crash-landing his plane in the middle of a suburban street.
One of the casualties of this approach is Seal himself, who, despite appearing in practically every frame of the film and narrating it via homemade video tapes, is rendered with an odd lack of specificity. Cruise brings his trademark charm and sense of commitment to the role, but he’s ultimately little more than a straight man to the crazily comedic portrayal of the deep state and the drug trade, a veritable nonentity who stumbles his way into one wild scheme after another with little sense of personal agency. Perhaps America’s black-ops shenanigans rely on people like this, who never say no and don’t ask too many questions, but the depiction feels less like a deliberate choice than the byproduct of Liman’s smash-cut comedic style, which always favors a punchline or a jarring edit over a moment of psychological insight.
In its best moments, such as a blistering montage that succinctly encapsulates the hypocrisy of Reagan’s war on drugs, American Made manages to infuse its zany cynicism with a deeper sense of purpose, underscoring the fact that Seal’s madcap adventures were linked to broader currents that destroyed lives at home and abroad. But Liman never lets such depressing considerations complicate his chasing after yuks, playing even the death of a side character as a blithesome little gag. And that’s why, for all its charmingly chaotic energy, American Made ultimately feels like a hollow exercise: It simply doesn’t take human life seriously.