"American Made" starts with an excerpt from a speech President Jimmy Carter gave in 1979, in which he described a "crisis of confidence" throughout the nation.
"For the first time in the history of our country," Carter told Americans through their televisions, "a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years."
That's a sentiment that could be straight out of the current American political climate, and by inserting into the introductory moments of "American Made," writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman make it clear why they likely wanted to tell this story in particular right now.
Parts of Carter's speech that do not appear in the film also feel like the product of a time warp. He attributes the confidence crisis to "growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions."
He continued, "We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate."
All of those concerns have repeated themselves since Carter identified them -- gun violence, unjustified wars, a presidency built on dishonor and shock -- which make sit difficult to look back at the 1979 speech with any satisfaction that Carter got it right. If anything, the reasons for America's "crisis of confidence" have only multiplied and deepened in the years since.
The events that are depicted in "American Made" are representative of why Carter's so-called "crisis" only got worse, not better. Spanning from 1979 to 1986, the film is based on the true story of Barry Seal, a disgruntled and self-absorbed commercial pilot whose illegal ways of supplementing his income attract the attention of the CIA -- not to punish him, but to hire him to do some dirty work for the American government.
That dirty work, at first, amounts to carrying out spy missions in South American countries that are exploited by both the United States and the Soviet Union as literal surrogate battlefields for the two countries' ideological political warfare. Eventually, the dirty work includes sneaking American weapons into the untrained hands of anti-communist Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
Then, it extends to sneaking the rebels themselves into the United States for military training. None of it ever makes the world safer, or even seems to have any tangible benefits to American interests.
Also, because Seal shares the CIA's indifference toward legal or ethical boundaries, it doesn't take him long before he starts finding ways to amplify his own ability to personally profit from the sanctioned, under-the-table government work. After befriending the leaders of the Medellín Cartel in Colombia, Seal becomes a drug smuggler for the cartel.
Because it doesn't really matter who the dirty work is for: All that matters is the profits. And maybe the thrill of it. Seal, like his government, operates on the assumption that his actions have no lasting consequences. And his relationship with the government only strengthens that belief in a spiral of unethical choices and over-the-top circumstances.
The film makes a good case that Seal embodies much of what is corrupt and wrong with the American system, and Tom Cruise is well cast. The role asks Cruise to do more here dramatically than is normal for him, and Cruise, despite being an incredible hard worker and a tremendous performer, is not necessarily much of an "actor." But he does a great job with the material here, because Seal's deepest characteristic is, essentially, that he imagines himself as Tom Cruise.
The self-important, entitled angst of the disgruntled American male is on full display in this character.
Another crucial player here is Domhnall Gleeson as Monty "Schafer," whose disregard for consequences and impulse toward sneaking combines with access to the full might of the United States government, making a bad combination that is representative of the larger problem. Gleeson gives the role all the nerdy destructive potential of Sorkin's Mark Zuckerberg.
The film is not a personal morality tale in the vein of "The Wolf of Wall Street," because the sharp-edged commentary isn't aimed at the characters themselves. None of them ever sink so low that they themselves become the focus of the audience's righteous anger. Instead, the characters are all basically dumb, self-interested pawns, making their contributions to the ongoing crisis of American confidence just part of a larger cultural unraveling.
"American Made" is Liman's second film this year to use genre conventions to explore the disintegration of American myths, after the much smaller "The Wall." Both films are smarter than they should be given the kinds of movies they are.
And there's magic in Liman's collaboration with Cruise (the two previously made "Edge of Tomorrow" together, which is not as politically interested, but which is a lot of fun). It's nice to see Tom Cruise going for something that is risky in different ways than his normal obsessions: Here, he never has to breathe underwater or jump onto a moving plane, for example, but he does have to go put himself out there in a different kind of way.
The idea of the Tom Cruise persona itself is up for critique in "American Made," and like he does in every single one of his roles, Tom Cruise shows up for it, risks and all.
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
Running time: 1 hour, 55 min
Rating: R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity