Movie Review: American Made

The link between the CIA and drug smuggling in the 1980s gets a comedic look

American Made
(Barry Seal: Nebeský gauner)
Directed by Doug Liman
With Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Connor Trinneer, E. Roger Mitchell, Sharon Conley, Jayson Warner Smith, Lola Kirke, Caleb Landry Jones, Benito Martinez

The 1980s are known as a time of excess in the United States, especially when it comes to cocaine. Links between the drug trade from Latin America and the CIA have long been rumored, but officially disputed.

The new film American Made, starring Tom Cruise as pilot Barry Seal, shows one of the more popular theories of how this worked, though with a few liberties from established facts.

The film starts with Barry Seal, who was a real person, working as pilot for TWA and a bit bored with his job. Early on, he is approached by someone from the CIA and offered a clandestine job that sounds innocent enough at first, but of course things escalate quickly.

The film takes place at the end of the Jimmy Carter administration and the beginning of the Reagan era. During this time the US was backing anti-communist forces in several countries to battle the growing communist influence, allegedly backed by the Soviets. Domestically, this was the era of “just say no,” the White House's overly simplistic anti-drug policy.

For people who remember the 1980s, a number of familiar names pop up during the film such as Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar and Oliver North. Bill Clinton even pops up momentarily.

In real life, the CIA-backed policies in Latin America were quite brutal, as were the tactics of drug lords like Escobar.

American Made glosses over this quite a bit, taking a somewhat humorous tone as Barry Seal gets more deeply involved both in Latin America and at home, where his biggest problem is where to hide all of his money.

Cruise gives one of his better recent performances, making up for the truly dreadful The Mummy, which came out earlier this summer, and the middling action sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back from 2016.

He dominates the film, but has some able support from Domhnall Gleeson as Monty Schafer, his weaselly and untrustworthy CIA contact, and Sarah Wright as Barry’s wife, Lucy, who is kept out of the loop and blindly goes along without asking questions.

A subplot with Lucy's trailer-trash brother JB, played by Caleb Landry Jones, also adds some interest later in the film.

The film project went through a long development, and at one point Ron Howard, who is credited as a producer, was supposed to direct. The original title was Mena, referring to a town in the US where much of the action takes place.

In the end, the director was Doug Liman, who previously worked with Cruise on the high-concept sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow, which had good reviews but was a bit disappointing at the box office.

Liman keeps the action moving rapidly and captures the spirit of the era through music, costumes and other details. Screen effects sometimes mimic the quality of VHS video tape, further reinforcing the feel of the era.

There has been a trend to play serious political matters and the drug trade for laughs. The 2016 film War Dogs made a comedy of two stoners getting involved in international arms dealing in the 2000s.

Another film from 2016, Gold, offered a fun-filled roller coaster ride look as a swindle that robbed many investors of their life savings. Similarly, Martin Scorsese's 2013 film Wolf of Wall Street had fun with another charismatic character that left many victims destitute.

Back further, the 2001 film Blow made light of another smuggler involved with Pablo Escobar, with Johnny Depp as George Jung.

Closer in themes to American Made, the 1990 film Air America, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr., looked into a CIA-backed airline during the Vietnam War era, substituting laughs for some of the more serious implications of heroin smuggling and secretly supporting pro-American forces in Laos.

Few people would go to see a documentary on these issues, but the comedic approach tends to in a way justify the illegal actions. They can't be so bad if we are all sitting and laughing at them.

American Made, though, despite its flippant tone at times, is one of the better films of the summer. It tells a coherent and compelling story based on characters, without resorting to a mess of CGI effects at the end. And it might at least make people interested in finding out more of what really happened in foreign policy during the Reagan era.

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