‘American Made’ educates, entertains



The new biographical crime film “American Made,” directed by Doug Liman and starring Tom Cruise, has received generally positive reviews from critics. It currently holds an 87 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

CLINTON OLSASKY, Executive Editor | [email protected]

Given its labyrinthine plot of deception, corruption and excess, it may be hard to believe that Doug Liman’s new biographical crime film “American Made” is actually based on true events.

The film follows infamous pilot and drug smuggler Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) as he deals with the Medellin Cartel and various U.S. governmental agencies in the early 1980s. As Seal quickly acquires a personal fortune through illicit means, his life spirals out of control as forces within the American government, as well as in the drug cartels of Central America, inevitably converge.

To call “American Made” a “thrill ride” would be an understatement, as the film’s real-life events are heightened through Liman’s hyper-stylized visuals, a fittingly frenetic screenplay and Cruise’s paradoxically grounded and unhinged performance.

Directing: 4/5

As a way to reflect Seal’s frenzied and chaotic lifestyle, Liman opts for quick cuts and rapid editing. The film moves at a breakneck pace, with several years of complex foreign policy and international relations being condensed into a tidy 117 minutes.

To complement the film’s pacing, Liman directs with a stylistic flourish, making full use of such directorial tool as Dutch angles, match cuts and mirror shots. Liman truly makes full use of his frame, often crowding his shots with close-ups or multiple compositional elements, thereby injecting a sense of urgency and confusion.

In addition, Liman’s camera is almost always moving. In other words, there are rarely ever any static compositions throughout “American Made,” which effectively adds to the film’s overwhelming feeling of instability.

The only major criticism one can make about Liman’s direction is that the hyper-stylized look of the film can come across as too forced and disorienting, which may alienate some viewers. However, by and large, Liman’s direction rarely detracts from the film and ultimately adds to the central story at hand. 

Writing: 3/5

The real-life events that inspired “American Made” are admittedly complex, with historical, cultural and political variables playing a crucial role in Barry Seal’s shockingly true story.

However, thanks to a tightly-written screenplay (and the aforementioned compact editing), “American Made” largely succeeds in condensing a rather involved story into an easily digestible and extremely entertaining crime drama – all without sacrificing the veracity of the source material.

With that being said, the extremely taut pacing that permeates “American Made” does diminish much of the film’s emotional depth. For example, the relationship between Seal and his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) is hardly explored, simply due to the film’s emphasis on the events in Central America. And while this focus on action and exposition is necessary for narrative coherence, the lack of emotional resonance is sorely missed.

Still, the film’s deft and nimbly constructed screenplay proves to be a winning formula, overall. Indeed, perhaps the film’s greatest strength stems from its ability to relate otherwise esoteric and remote events to the average U.S. citizen.

Although relations in Latin American countries like Nicaragua or Colombia may not seem immediately relevant or personally impactful to the average American, Liman’s film successfully makes these events feel pertinent by focusing on the character of Barry Seal, who’s formerly “average” life is transformed as a result of extraordinary circumstances. 

Acting: 4/5

Tom Cruise truly shines as Barry Seal, injecting a curious mixture of grounded resolve and unhinged recklessness to his character. In addition, Cruise’s Seal narrates much of the film from his perspective, and “American Made” is better because of it due to the star’s undeniable charisma.

Domhnall Gleason also stands out as CIA Agent Monty Schafer. Gleason excels as the duplicitous Schafer, emitting an aura of deceit and mistrust (not unlike his recent starring turn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as the evil General Hux).

In addition, Alejandro Edda delivers a multilayered and supremely entertaining performance as drug-lord Jorge Ochoa, incorporating a unique blend of charm and terror.

It should be noted, however, that Sarah Wright suffers in the role of Lucy, Barry Seal’s wife. Given such little material to work with, though, it comes as no surprise that Wright’s character is incredibly flat and one-dimensional.

Overall: 3.5/5

“American Made” is one of the most pleasant surprises to come out of Hollywood thus far this year. With a riveting fact-based story at its center, the film fuses stylistic direction with compelling performances to produce an action-packed and satisfyingly smart crime flick that doesn’t skimp on thrills.

With that being said, the film’s necessarily taut screenplay, does often result in a rushed and emotionally flimsy narrative. Nonetheless, “American Made” should be considered a success for its ability to simultaneously educate and entertain – all the while, illuminating the many ways in which much of our country’s problems really are “American made.”