Tom Cruise is back in top form in ‘American Made’. The best chemistry he has is not with people, but with aircraft. Give the man a plane, and he will light up the screen. He plays Barry Seal, a daring pilot hired by the CIA, who became a crucial cog in the US involvement to derail Central American Governments in the 1970s and 1980s. The movie is based on politically incendiary facts, and this actor has the flair to play a dare devil Yank (‘Gringo’ in this film), without a single moral qualm in his body.
Barry was a TWA pilot who was spotted smuggling Cuban cigars into the US by airport authorities. This harmless, though apparently illegal activity, caught the attention of the CIA, and they hired him to fly the most sophisticated aircraft they had, fitted with the latest cameras, to take pictures of rebel activities in Colombia, Nicaragua and other troubled nations in the region. He did his job well, but wanted to make some extra money, and so, on his return journey to the US, would fly back drugs from the Medellin Cartel in Colombia.
The unflappable pilot who partied with Pablo Escobar and then took off from impossibly short runways in the jungles, is portrayed as a lean and hungry looking man, with great personal charm and nerves of steel. The best scenes in the film are to do with the flying, and one of them is a stand out. This is when Barry first meets the Cartel, and he agrees to load his aircraft with many bags of cocaine. At first, he looks at the runway from an aviator’s perspective. He realises that his plane is not going to be able to take off with that kind of load. Then he thinks of the offer - $2000, per kilo transported. He gives in to the insane greed within him and touches the branches of trees as he lifts off. On the ground, members of the Cartel have placed bets on whether the ‘mad Gringo’ can do it.
The last thoroughly enjoyable airplane movie with a gifted pilot as an anti-hero was Denzel Washington in ‘Flight’ (2012). Both Cruise and Washington portray flawed characters, who do not, or cannot, come to terms with their amoral personal make-ups. In the case of ‘American Made', history tells us that the CIA funded activities, in which drugs smuggled from Central America served as currency for the supply of arms to the Contras, resulted in havoc - to the nations concerned, as well as to the inner city areas of the US, which proliferated with easily available narcotics as a result. It was an all American made, social and political disaster.
Writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman are critical of the US, without being cynical. They place their story in the context of the great American dream- getting rich quick - and turn it into a virtual nightmare. At one point the Tom Cruise character has so much cash, that he runs out of storage space. Here is a man so overwhelmed by money, that he is now desperately insecure about the safety of his family. The actor develops an appropriately haunted look in these scenes.
Though the film does overload us with information about the politics of the 1970s and early 1980s, it is an absorbing watch for most of its duration.