People always say that “winners don’t do drugs!” and that is true for some. In the case of pilot Barry Seal, that was also true, it’s just he dealt them instead. Yes, it is time for people to know the story of one man who wanted it all and got it, but not without some turbulence along the way. American Made is the prime example of how intelligence and desire can mix together to form success, but then, a lot of movies have done that, so what makes this different?
This is story isn’t so much about the personal gain of the character, but more about how he was willing to go above and beyond to play every side imaginable; opportunity and then there is betrayal. During the late 70’s, it became apparent that the drug war of America was in full swing with the CIA running out of intel and ideas. Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) approaches TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) to work for the agency to take photos, gather intel from General Noriega and run guns to organisations in Central America. However, upon taking this opportunity, he then decides to smuggle drugs for the cartels into America under the agency’s nose. With money coming from every direction, he soon learns that this lifestyle, will always have its consequences. This is a story where you know how it’s going to end; if films like The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) or Gold (2016) have taught us anything, is that the inevitable outcome will be the lead crashing and burning in their own success. It is a story that everyone will find entertaining and hilarious, but way too predictable.
Sure, it may be a real story, but most films of this type are, so any form of self-discovery or surprise is non-existent. It is a shame, but you for the most part, this film is a non-stop ride of entertainment and obscure comedy. That has always been the trademark of director Doug Liman; he has always managed to liven up every story that he has been presented with, with bursts of humour and actually, very solid drama (although we can miss out Mr and Mrs Smith (2005)). For the most part, the casting in the movie isn’t great and their performances don’t save them from their outright appearances, but all is not lost. Tom Cruise delivers what is without a doubt, one of the best performances of his career, right up there with Ethan Hunt, Ron Kovic, Jerry Maguire and Frank Mackey. His particular style of comedic acting and drama suit this story perfectly, adding up to becoming the best part of the whole film; a welcome change of pace from the stuff he is usually playing in these days. So this film really is a one man show, but that doesn’t mean that not much happens… oh no!
This is a surprisingly thrilling film; plane crashes in the Amazon rainforest, exploding cars curtesy of the cartels, hotel shootouts in Nicaragua, all dressed up in 70’s practical effects. There isn’t an ounce of CG in this film, a huge comparison to the last film Doug Liman did; Edge of Tomorrow (2014). The film is much better off for it, even though that most of the film centres around Tom Cruise and not much of the action. What this is, is one of the rare examples of a dramatic thriller; less explosions, more emotion. It is nearing the end of the year now, and we need something to quieten the explosive summer to make why the grand finale of December.
What’s more, this is one of only a few films this year to actually be set in the 1970’s, which means that it ultimately feels and sounds different to the bombastic feel of WW2 or the sleek feel of the future. Propellers on planes, v8 engines, revolvers and semi-automatic rifles and classic camera shutters, all of the sounds of a period that we, the audience, so desperately crave in fiction today. And with the 70’s sound design, comes a 70’s soundtrack.
Regular collaborator and composer Christophe Beck has decided to go for as simple as approach to music as possible for this film. There is barely any original music at all and where there is, it is there to fill in the gaps that the songs cannot, like when the mood turns nasty. Overall, the music in the film is actually very, as it always has been with Christophe Beck, but he is one of only a few composers who has the art to not only make good music, but select good music as well. Hot Chocolate, George Harrison, Marty House, Loosely Tight and The Bellamy Brothers are just some of the crazy tracks featured in this film and all of them serve to propel the story forward and remind the audience of a time when things changed way too fast, much like now really, only a bit less idiotic.
Where this film really succeeds in delivering its effectiveness to the audience is in the feel of the film. Forget the drug houses of Colombia or in the middle of Louisiana, forget the offices of Manuel Noriega and even forget the White House sets, they are not actually very detailed or majorly authentic to the film. You should only have to focus on the way this film is shot to get the effect. Cinematographer César Charlone has created an almost beta-tape VHS look to this film, thanks to the magic of old cameras and vintage optics. It isn’t hugely impressive in composition or movement, where the cinematography succeeds, is in the use of light, shadow and colour.
A slightly muted palette to signify the fall of the swinging sixties to make way for a quieter, comparatively subdued seventies. Soft focus and large use of era specific lighting means that the overall look of this film evokes a great sense of retro feeling for the audience, and I like that. The editing in this film though is fantastic, Andrew Mondshein, Saar Klein and Dylan Tichenor have used a complex hybrid of split screen, animations and crude explanatory text to give the audience a little bit of extra spice to an otherwise fairly balance palette. In many ways, it reminds me of the editing in the Big Short (2015) and that is some of the best modern editing I have ever seen.
American Made doesn’t seem to be looking for cinematic immortality, or indeed any awards at the end of the year, but why should it? All it asks for, is to look to it and take it as an example of what can be done to make biopics interesting, no more, no less.
I give this film a 7.5/10.