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‘American Made’ blurs the lines between fact and fiction, but does so in a fantastic way

September 29, 2017

Sometimes truth is crazier than fiction. Most other times it is way more mundane. And then there’s those other areas, such as the case of “American Made” where you can’t tell which is more insane because of how blurred the lines are.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) and Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) in Universal Pictures' “American Made.” (Photo by David James. Copyright: © 2017 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal – a commercial airline pilot turned government agent turned gun runner turned drug smuggler.

 

As this story goes – the “true” Seal story is still largely shrouded in mystery – Barry is a TWA pilot who has seemingly become bored with the boring day-to-day of flying commercial airlines. Despite this, he sticks it out as he has a wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and a young family at home to support.

 

After a somewhat sketchy run across the Canadian border, Barry cross paths with Monty “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) a CIA handler who wants him to quit his job and work (secretly, of course) for the government.

 

Eventually the boredom consumes Barry and he takes Monty up on his offer to make regular runs to South America to spy on governments, militants, and pretty much anyone that can be spotted from the air. Those duties eventually morph into more nefarious covert operations on behalf the government.

 

His travels south of the border also draws the attention of many, many people – namely the Medellín Cartel, i.e. Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda). The cartel wants Barry to use his abilities and CIA hookups to help them distribute their “merchandise” and make them all very, very wealthy.

 

Barry obliges, but as his riches and notoriety increases, he draws the ire of pretty much everyone, turning his life into an uncontrollable mess.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) in Universal Pictures' “American Made.” (Photo by David James. Copyright: © 2017 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

The craziest thing about “American Made” is that it’s “based” on actual events. The quotation marks are because it’s fair to ask just how much is real, how much is hearsay, and how much is “inspired by” Barry’s story rather than based on it.

 

What we do know is that Barry Seal was a pilot and he did indeed spend time as a government informant and he did run guns and drugs back and forth between America and South America. At whose command those actions came by, is up for debate … drugs cartels are generally secretive about their business dealings, as are covert government agencies.

 

Here’s what else we know: “American Made” is ridiculously good.

 

There’s action, there’s humor, there’s intrigue, and there’s even some very real, very palpable tension. You also get to have the fun of determining which ridiculous situations actually happened and which are little more than Hollywood inventions.

 

Here’s something else we know, and I begrudgingly admit: Tom Cruise is probably as good as I’ve ever seen him. Maybe not Oscar-nomination good, but I wouldn’t be at all shocked or disappointed if it happened. Barry Seal, or pretty much anyone that knowingly gets into business with Pablo Escobar and/or the CIA, has something going on upstairs that most people can’t comprehend. It’s also something that likely can’t be contained inside a person – all the crazy might not come spilling out, but you can easily see some of it. And try as you might, while you see the crazy, the questionable decisions, the shocking behavior, you can’t help but like and root for the guy. It’s almost as if Tom’s been method acting for the last 10+ years.

 

The other thing that really stands out to me is the look and feel of the film. The action scenes aren’t too over-the-top, at least in comparison to the overall story, but they’re engaging enough to keep your attention; there’s some truly beautiful shots of the less-travelled areas of the SE United States and South America; and generally speaking, there’s just some really interesting cinematography that makes even non-action sequences look good.

 

The other fun thing about “American Made” is the prominent political figures of the 1980s and 1990s that pop up throughout the film. Whether they had any actual ties or interactions with Seal is irrelevant because they’re essentially cameos.

 

My only gripe is the blurred lines between reality and fiction. While it’s fun to play the guessing game, it’s such an interesting “biopic” that I’d like to know where one starts and the other begins.

 

★★★★1/2 of ★★★★★

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