The latest Tom Cruise film, American Made is based on the life of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot turned drug smuggler turned DEA informant instrumental in putting several members of the Medellín Cartel in jail. He did work for Pablo Escobar. He was tangentially involved in the Iran-Contra affair. He was in a photo Reagan’s White House televised as part of the war on drugs and the Cold War.
Is it true? Roughly. Many of the events depicted in the film happened. Many happened out of order. Some details were added, some details were embellished, and some where left out (Barry Seal actually spent some time in prison for drug smuggling, for instance). And yes, that photo exists, although it’s not as clear as the one in the film.
That’s the nature of these “inspired by true events” movies.
But what’s true and what isn’t almost seems beside the point once a film is made. History books give short shrift to the Contras and the Sandinistas, Reagan’s involvement, the DEA’s role, and how Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel seemed to be in cahoots with everyone. It’s all shrouded in conspiracy and classified intelligence. But this here, folks, is a moving picture starring Tom Cruise, and it’s going to be remembered ultimately as the truth, even if Barry had three wives and five children in real life and only one wife and three children in the film (in fact, the wife in the film, Lucy (real name Debbie Seal) was sued by the first daughter (not in the film) — the administrator of Barry Seal’s estate — for selling the rights to Barry’s story without permission).
Point is: The truth was pretty fascinating, and so is this Tom Cruise moving picture. It’s terrific, in fact. Taking place in between 1978 and 1985, Cruise plays Barry Seal, an airline pilot involved in some petty smuggling who gets recruited by the CIA to take surveillance photos in Central America, control of which — at the time — was being fought over between America and the Communists. Surveillance photos lead to drug runs, which leads to gun running for the CIA (who were trying to arm the Contras), which leads to more drug smuggling for the Medellín cartel, which leads to Barry Seal making a whole lot of money while being propped up by the United States government, which outfitted him with his own private airport in the small town of Mena, Arkansas.
That sounds like a big story, but director Doug Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli (working from accounts, in part, from Barry’s third wife and children) keep it tightly focused and personal. It involves a lot of flying (something with which Cruise has plenty of experience), several interactions with a CIA agent (gamely played by Domhnall Gleeson, who is in everything these days), and Barry’s wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), who enjoys the spoils of Barry’s success. Jesse Plemons is in here, too, as the small-town cop (and the fact that he’s married to Lola Kirke in the film suggests that much of their story may have been left on the cutting room floor).
Liman keeps the action lively with a quick pace and a lot of humor, which gives the film a tone closer to that of Ocean’s 11 than, say, Sicario. It’s fun, and Tom Cruise and his Southern accent are the stars of the show. It’s the best Cruise performance in years, so effective that there were a few times I even managed to forget I was watching a Tom Cruise movie. He doesn’t take himself too seriously here; he’s charming and quick-witted, which is a considerable relief after The Mummy. It’s fast and loose with Cruise playing something akin to Maverick crossed with Saul Goodman, and how true it is ultimately becomes beside the point, because it is entertaining as hell.