Barry Seal, a real-life, albeit minor, figure in the Iran-contra scandal, takes center stage in the fact-based yet heavily fictionalized “American Made,” with such major figures as Oliver North (Robert Farrior) and Ronald Reagan (depicted in archival news clips) relegated to the periphery. A young George W. Bush makes a fleeting cameo — via the impersonation of actor Connor Trinneer — and the name Bill Clinton, then-governor of Arkansas, where much of the film is set, gets dropped.
Directed by Doug Liman from a cheeky screenplay by Gary Spinelli, the antic saga unfolds from the point of view of Barry (Tom Cruise), beginning in 1978 as a series of darkly comic flashbacks, all of which are interspersed with Barry’s unreliable, hindsight-is-20/60 video-diary narration from late 1985 and early 1986, just before the film’s improbable but true-ish events come crashing down around him.
The Barry we first meet is as much Cruise as Seal, a roguish TWA pilot who is at once more handsome and charming than the guy on whom this story is based ever could have been, and less straight-arrow a character than we’re used to seeing the actor play. As the film opens, Barry is shown creating turbulence from the cockpit of his plane, jerking the nose of his jet violently up and down to wake his sleeping copilot. “Sully” Sullenberger he ain’t.
Almost immediately thereafter, Barry is shown being recruited by a CIA handler called, pseudonymously, “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson), to undertake an aerial photo reconnaissance of insurgents in Central America. Just as quickly, this patriotic mission leads to a side gig as a drug courier for the Medellin cartel in Colombia, through a combination of cinematically convenient but historically implausible coercion and sweet-talk — involving an offer of $2,000 per kilo of cocaine transported. Before you know it, Barry is simultaneously running drugs, weapons and the Nicaraguan freedom fighters known as contras between South and Central America and his home base in Mena, Ark., where he employs a crew of four fellow pilots, all under the winking eye of “Schafer.” There’s so much cash being made that it overflows from Samsonite suitcases, with bills sticking out like cartoonish corruption markers.
And that’s really what “American Made” is: a cartoon. Shot with the grainy colors of a yellowed photo album from the ’80s, the movie takes a larky and entertaining look at a chapter of U.S. history through a funhouse mirror, darkened only slightly by the shadow of violence that looms over it, but it rarely clouds the film’s sunny demeanor. Unlike the real events, this tale is largely a consequence-free one, despite the central presence of such figures as Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), the notoriously violent drug lord, and his cohorts Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yate Escobar). Before the film’s ignominious conclusion, real violence rears its head only once, in the form of a car bomb.
Liman knows how to keep the convoluted, almost impossibly far-fetched story on the rails, without losing our attention, and he adds many details that will bring a smile. Unlike the CIA of the director’s “The Bourne Identity,” for instance — a sleekly efficient, high-tech world of shadowy operatives and Machiavellian control — the agency that “Schafer” works for is an incompetent, fluorescent-lit cubicle farm populated by paper-pushing desk jockeys.
Cruise, for his part, seems almost too big for the part, a superstar slumming as a slightly seedy bagman. But he brings a game willingness to get down and dirty as Barry — his tooth is knocked out while the character is arrested. For much of the film, he’s covered with sweat, grime, blood or — in one scene, after crash-landing his plane in a residential neighborhood while eluding airborne DEA agents — cocaine. It’s outlandish stuff all right, but probably only a little bit more preposterous than the true story. It’s also pretty funny.
Until, suddenly, it isn’t. Although “American Made” spins a yarn of scot-free malfeasance, all the money and coke and chicanery must eventually come to an end, as it did in real life. Even as Cruise keeps us rooting for Barry, Liman reminds us that this is a story of bad guys. The ballad of Barry Seal doesn’t end very well, but it does better by us — or at least those of us who are looking for a shred of verisimilitude. “American Made” closes this chapter of punch-drunk history, not with the titter of forced laughter, but with a real-world bang.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language, sex, nudity and some violence. 115 minutes.