“… it’s mockumentary-esque and steeped in the aesthetics of the time, so it takes a bit of getting used to.”
Yesterday I saw American Made and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. American Made is a movie about American pilot Barry Seal, who is recited by the CIA to secretly gather intelligence. This new job opportunity opens Barry up to the world of cartels and smuggling, and soon enough he is neck-deep in shit; but before all of that happens, he makes a shitload of cash.
American Made reminded me a lot of The Wolf of Wall Street because both films present the dangers of dealing in excess; each respective main character learning that fact too late and it leading to their demise. Though these films have similar arcs, that’s where the comparisons stop. The way that The Wolf of Wall Street presented its message was, in my opinion, much better crafted than the way that American Made did the same. One reason for this, and the reason American Made wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, was how much the film leaned into the ‘based on a true story’ aspect. Now usually when a movie is based on a true story you see a title card stating that fact and that’s where it ends. The same can not be said for American Made because this fact seemed to greatly influence the film’s production. By this I mean American Made tried really hard to make you believe what you were seeing was real. Even past the story being presented, director Doug Liman wanted you to believe that you weren’t watching Tom Cruise anymore, but rather Barry Seal himself. This approach to tackling this story led to some very interesting camerawork. The best way for me to describe it would be to say that it was like watching a documentary, but at the same time it was kind of distracting. Instead of going for conventional shots, Liman opted to go handheld for a lot of the film to give it that ‘real’ feel. This includes quite bit of “amateur” dramatic zooms when characters are speaking. You know it’s funny, I rarely ever see that technique used in actual documentaries, but whenever a movie is trying to spoof or emulate a documentary, it is everywhere. American Made also kind of took a few notes from films like The Big Short, saving sections of the film for directly addressing the audience. This was yet another way to build immersion, but once again it was kind of distracting. Instead of seeing these events unfold naturally we were being told about them by Tom Cruise himself. These sections are fit with even a few motion graphics that aid Tom Cruise in his various explanations whose topics range from geography to history. And speaking of history, American Made used another thing to its advantage: the time period in which the film is set. American Made is set largely in the 70’s and 80’s, and immediately you understand this when the film starts. The abrupt studio pre rolls that crackle and shift into their olds selves is all you need to see to understand that American Made isn’t going to let you forget when this film is set. This isn’t a bad thing by the way, far from it in fact, American Made uses this aesthetics of the time to create a film that is actually unique. The last movie that I can remember doing this was maybe The Nice Guys, but I haven’t seen it in a while so I can’t really speak to how it compares to American Made.
Moving on to the film itself, let’s talk about the story. As I mentioned American Made is in a way comparable to The Wolf of Wall Street in that is shows the dangers of certain extravagant lifestyles. And also like The Wolf of Wall Street, it does so in a way that is completely hilarious. I don’t know what it is, but taking a character who is a bit cocky and giving them a shitload of money is always a recipe for comedy gold. I guess in a way it creates this larger disconnect between the character and the audience, and that leads to us viewing almost everything they do as ridiculous. I might be way off base, but the point is that American Made is fucking hilarious. One thing I do have to critique is the pacing of the film, specifically the beginning. American Made is a very large story. The journey that Barry Seal takes from the beginning of the film to the end is immense. My problem was, it was a little too much to take in at times. The beginning of the film is where I want to focus this dislike, because there was even more to take in then. I already mentioned how this movie is kind of a shock to the system; it’s mockumentary-esque and steeped in the aesthetics of the time, so it takes a bit of getting used to. So it would make sense to ease the audience into the story slowly, allowing them to get acclimated to what they are seeing first, right? American Made doesn’t do this at all. Within the first 30 minutes of this film we meet Barry Seal, he gets approached by the CIA, he works for the CIA, he gets approached by the cartel, he works for the cartel, he starts working more for the CIA (doing more involved jobs), he then gets caught working for the cartel, and promptly reprimanded by the CIA. That’s pretty much an entire story arc right there, so imagine my surprise when I look at my watch and see that only 30 minutes have passed. This was handled poorly, but much like everything else it’s something you have to get used to. American Made tries very hard to make you empathize with how much of a plate-spinning act Barry Seal’s life is. The beginning portion of this film captures that perfectly, but I don’t think it was smart to throw the audiences into the deep end like that. When you try to overload your audience, especially when the film has just started, you don’t usually get people saying “Wow, this is confusing as shit. Let’s continue watching to find out what happens next!”. You usually get people who just tune out because you failed to grab them in the first place.
On a lighter note the best thing about American Made was easily the performances. Let’s start small and work our way up, shall we? American Made features a whole lot of people that you will probably recognize. To name them all would take a long time, and to be honest not a lot of them had impactful roles, but let’s got through some anyway. Meth Damon (Jesse Plemons) makes a sweet, almost cameo appearance as a small-town sheriff despite him being a pretty big star to my knowledge. This tiny role didn’t offer much for Plemons, but he sure as shit nailed whatever the director was asking of him. He played the small-town cop who can see very little wrong beautifully, and his generally sunny disposition made me feel happy inside. Moving on we have Caleb Landry Jones playing the despicable brother-in-law to Barry Seal, JB. Caleb is no stranger to making your skin crawl and your blood boil, and this role is no different. I sure hope that this guy is nice in real life, because everything I’ve seen from him performance-wise has made me want to punch him in the face (in a good way). We also have Sarah Wright who, I’m going to be honest here, I thought was Alice Eve for the longest time. Despite me being an idiot she played the conflicted wife of Barry Seal very well, really conveying how much she hated Barry for putting himself and his family at risk, but at the same time how much she loved money. We then have Domhnall Gleeson who isn’t in the move much, but I’m not talking about screen time. Gleeson plays a CIA agent (I guess?), and because of that he is very refined. He plays this character as a cold, all-business kind of guy and it paints the picture of what Barry is getting himself into very well. Last but certainly not least you have the reason this movie worked (in my opinion), Tom Cruise playing Barry Seal. If there is one thing Tom Cruise is good at, it’s playing a conceited yet loveable man. Throughout this film you grow to hate Barry, understandably, but every once in a while you’ll feel oddly connected to him. That’s because Tom Cruise manages to strike this balance between hero and anti-hero that might not be beneficial for the story, but works wonderfully for the movie. You get to laugh at him, laugh with him, be scared for him, be ashamed of him; Tom Cruise manages to take you on an emotional journey throughout this film that really keeps you invested.
Overall American Made is a rather unique kind of movie. It really leans into the fact that it is based on true events by making the entire film a kind of pseudo-documentary. With this comes unconventional camerawork, fourth wall breaking, educational info graphics, and a whole lot of stuff to remind you that it’s the 80’s. The story does kind of suffer here and there, but the comedy and wonderful performances really keep hold of you until the credits start to roll.
I give American Made a B