When you get down to it, necessity is probably the least important metric in choosing to make, see, or enjoy a movie. Most movies are entirely unnecessary, and do little to push the boundaries of the cinematic arts or improve the lives of their audiences. Most movies simply exist. Which is fine. These “just-a-movies” as I call them are the gears that turn the Hollywood machine and keep the system running to produce the few works of legitimate art that we get per year. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy them.
American Made is definitely one of the least necessary movies of the year. We’ve seen countless movies about the drug running excesses of the 70s and 80s that have told this story or similar in better and more interesting ways. But so what? As unnecessary as it is, that hasn’t stopped it from being one of the more enjoyable films of at least the last quarter.
Doug Liman, of course, is a director who thrives in the grey area of unnecessity. He’s created something of an art form out of taking benign, unobtrusive stories and turning them into works that are worthy of attention, if not respect. With a Liman joint, you can rest assured that you’ll be getting, if nothing else, competency and entertainment which, however much the snobbier of film watchers might argue otherwise (myself included, on occasion) is still the ultimate point of going to the movies.
So whatever, man. Who cares that we’ve created something of a mythic cinematic figure out of Pablo Escobar? Why does it matter that every year gives us another film that, no matter how tangentially, explores the aspects of the Medellin cartel? What’s the point of arguing the semantics of necessity when a film is, ultimately, enjoyable?
If you can get to that level and come at American Made on its own terms, without worrying about the baggage that comes along with questions of necessity, then you’ll have a solid time at this (mostly) true recounting of one of the Medellin cartel’s top drug runners, who also worked as a contractor for the CIA, and may have played a minor role in the Iran-Contra scandal that always threatened (but never managed) to bring down the Reagan administration.
Tom Cruise plays the subject of American Made, former TWA pilot turned CIA patsy/prolific drug runner Barry Seal. He’s also the heart and soul of the film, delivering what might be his most successful and interesting performance since his cameo appearance in Tropic Thunder. Landing on the radar of CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) after smuggling Cuban cigars into America, Seal is seduced into joining an operation to provide guns to Central American rebels, which eventually lands him on the radar of Escobar and the Medellin cartel, which evolves into Seal establishing what amounts to an elite air delivery service that nets more money than he knows what to do with.
Movies like Blow, American Gangster, and of course Scarface have all explored similar stories with more lasting impact, but it’s best not to think about that when watching American Made. Nor is it worth considering how Breaking Bad offered a more nuanced portrayal of the corrupting power of money in the drug trade, and how easy it is for a regular guy to be seduced by the lure of wild riches and excitement. All of these things are true, but considering them too hard detracts from the ultimate experience of American Made.
Which, of course, is Cruise. Cruise is one of those actors who makes it easy to forget that he’s capable of brilliance; his latter-day career choices have done a remarkable job at obfuscating his talents. Still, he’s passable in bad movies, and magical in good ones. Whatever else you might say about American Made—about its necessity, about its rote predictability, about its all too familiar subject matter—it’s still a good movie, and one that allows Cruise to shine to the best of his abilities.
Frankly speaking, that’s something we’ve need from Cruise for years. These days, it’s become all too difficult to separate the actor from his roles; I haven’t seen Cruise play characters so much in recent years as I have seen Cruise play variations on Cruise. He’s become less of a draw than a distraction, with the actor doing and saying the same things, creating characters who are ultimately indistinguishable from each other.
Here, however, Cruise lets it all out and reminds of why we give a damn about him as a performer in the first place. Unlike the typical Cruiseian character, Seal is a tragic character, one who embodies the strengths and weaknesses of Americanism in all its warts and glory. He’s brash, bold, and daring to a fault, living in his bubble of unchecked, Reaganesque capitalism. He’s a warning, a reflection in the mirror.
The script from Gary Spinelli (Stash House) is a deeply researched, if embellished, recounting of Seal’s tragic tale. It’s difficult to make out what is fact and fiction in Seal’s story owing to the fact that much of what Seal claimed to be involved in was heavily classified and later denied by the CIA, which of course makes sense. However righteous their intentions may have been in their own minds, the CIA, in this case, and in so many others, blurred the lines of ethics and legality too far, creating a situation that, rightfully, calls into question American efforts abroad.
Liman, for his part, wonderfully recreates the world of small town 80s America, when the dream was alive and one person might have actually been able to make a difference. Liman utilizes various film techniques to capture the feeling of the era, pulling you deeper into the world of the period and recreating the look and vibe impeccable. Liman is a great cinematic stylist, and he lives up to his reputation perfectly here.
None of this ever fully answers the question of necessity about American Made, but all of it ultimately proves why necessity is such a poor metric. In capable hands, a movie can succeed regardless of how little it’s actually needed. To be sure, we don’t need American Made; but again I ask: So what? Even with an absence of purpose, it still manages to be a fun and engaging movie that’s worth seeing. In the end, that’s all you can ever really ask for.
American Made is now playing in theaters everywhere.