Doug Liman’s second film of 2017 centres on CIA operative and drug smuggler Barry Seal, although it’s not exactly a biopic so much as a riff on a certain kind of charisma that has come to characterise nostalgic recreations of the United States in the 70s and early 80s. While there is a factual core here, Gary Spinelli’s screenplay is largely a work of fiction, right down to the fictional video dispatches from Seal himself that supposedly ground the film in documentary veracity, but which eventually play as a parody of the kinds of pedantic period recreation that have become so inextricable from this particular dramatic mode. Add to that the fact that Seal has already been portrayed multiple times on film and television – sometimes as a folk hero, sometimes as a career criminal – and it’s almost inevitable that American Made should play as a mediation on how the image of Seal personifies our contemporary period nostalgia as much as how Seal himself personified a particular moment in time. In this particular version, Seal certainly starts out as a TWA pilot, as he did in real life, but the twists and turns that bring him to the CIA, guarantee him his own private airport, and then see him smuggling drugs for the DEA, are handled with an enormous amount of artistic license, in what often feels more like an impressionistic tapestry of his legacy rather than a more convention engagement with what he actually did and believed.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, since by this stage the American Cold War period piece is so exhausted that the only way to really continue it is through just this kind of deconstructive riff, to the point where the title often seems to refer to the manufacture of this type of period effect as much as the drug trade, or Seal’s professional life. You might think of American Made as the end point of Argo, replacing Ben Affleck’s self-serious efforts to inhabit Tony Mendez with the more playful assertion that Seal would probably have modelled himself on Tom Cruise if he hadn’t been murdered by Pablo Escobar’s operatives in 1986, the year that Top Gun was released. Playing Seal, then, means that Cruise is also playing Cruise, and riffing on himself, which for another actor might become tiresome really quickly, but always seems to work for Cruise, who has an innate ability to somehow always be himself on screen without the self-referentiality ever getting in the way of the sincerity of his performance. Ironically, that makes for about the most accurate depiction of Seal’s character (if not his life events) to be committed to the screen, since it’s clear from most descriptions that he was nothing if not adept at riffing on and improvising around his own historical texture in much the same manner that Cruise brings to the task of depicting him.
While the events of American Made may not be accurate, then, the synergy between Cruise and Seal creates a contagious sense of time and place that never seems slavishly simulacral nor devotionally self-serious in its period details. In part, that’s because Seal’s work for the CIA largely consists of routine surveillance and arms smuggling missions, producing a continuous sense of movement and momentum that never quite congeals or settles into a period effect, if only because so much of the action is set in the sky, and the sky doesn’t really date. From the earliest scenes of Seal’s aborted TWA career, Liman opts for a mildly travel-sick kind of mood, shifting between times and places so rapidly that you cease to notice the transitions, beyond a tipsy sense that no time and place is ever quite present either. Once Seal arrives at the CIA, that graduates into the anarchic high that comes with jet lag, as Liman continues to cut rapidly between scenes, but never rapidly enough to jar us out of this mildly hallucinatory state either, since, like Seal’s missions, this is a film that somehow moves rapidly and leisurely at the same time, a good atmosphere and ambience for a character that never really occupies one place or one political affiliation but is instead driven on by the ever-elasticising negotiations between one interested party and another.
No surprise, then, the nearly the entire first act is spent in the air, and yet even when Seal lands he never quite touches ground, with many of the key scenes taking place on rural, regional and provisional airports, in the moments just before or after takeoff or landing. Similarly, Cruise’s charisma is never quite grounded either, and never quite contained by the narrative, floating somewhere above it for one of his most buoyant and joyous performances in years, and the logical conclusion of his convergence of action and comedy over the last decade in particular. For all the brilliance of Jack Reacher, it was Doug Liman who best synergised and perfected these two sides of Cruise with Edge of Tomorrow, and you can easily tell from the opening minutes of American Made that Liman intuitively understands Cruise, and the best way to direct him. With the exception of his two films with Tony Scott, Cruise has never had much of a working relationship with directors, rotating from one big name to another but never sticking with any, as if prescient that his charisma could become parodic if allowed to settle into one groove. Restlessness is, after all, one of Cruise’s trademarks as a big screen actor, and yet with Liman it feels as if he just may have found a director who can bring out his inherently comic persona without ever devolving into parody and pastiche either, which bodes well for the upcoming sequel to Edge of Tomorrow.
For all those reasons, American Made often reminded me of Roger Spottiswoode’s Air America – in the sheer amount of action it situates in the ten metres above the ground, in its parodic riff on the way certain historical periods suddenly become fertile ground for period drama, and in the way in which both leads (in Spottiswoode’s case, Mel Gibson) are blessed with a role that improvises their personae more dexterously than they ever could. As with Air America, everything in American Made seems to stem from the knockabout contingencies of Cruise’s charisma, with even the major plots occurring as if by accident, most notably Seal’s eventual collaboration with the Medellin Cartel, which in this version only occurs after they apprehend him furtively filling up at a petrol pump at a sleepy Mexican airport on his way back to the United States. While the film may be playing to a renewed interest in Pablo Escobar, then, it’s also a terrific counterpoint to the stylised, static, discursive aesthetic of Narcos, which all too often plays as a series of pedantically curated photographic tableaux accompanied by one Wikipedia voiceover after another. Here there’s too much picaresque momentum for the screenplay to ever solidify into that kind of historicised approach, since even the most dramatic transitions in Seal’s fortune occur in quite a bathetic manner, usually at the behest of his CIA handler, Monty Schafer, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who appears from time to time to modify his responsibilities.
The most dramatic of these changes come when Seal and his family are moved from their home city of Baton Rouge to the small town of Mena, Arkansas, where he is provided with a house, a massive property and his own private airport to accommodate the ballooning scale of his operations. Granted, this airport is in a state of disrepair, but over the second act of the film Seal rehabilitates it to working order, eventually flying in Contras to be trained by the United States government to fight against the Sandinistas, but also continuing his surreptitious relationship with the Medellin Cartel by way of a fleet of private pilots that he keeps at his beck and call. In many ways, this sustained second act was my favourite part of the film, not least because of the various plot threads that converge around Seal’s house and airport. These include the arrival of his unpredictable brother-in-law, JB, played by Caleb Landry Jones, and the mounting suspicion of the local sheriff, played by Jesse Plemons, who finds himself questioning why air traffic over Mena has increased one hundredfold, why the local bank has dedicated its entire vault to Mena’s newest resident, and why Seal is able to afford a flotilla of cars never before glimpsed in this part of Arkansas.
Part of the pleasure of this second act also comes from the way in which it grafts the buoyant momentum of the first act onto a single place, since while Seal’s flying career may still be a point of focus, most of its picaresque momentum is transferred into his dodging efforts to maintain the right distance between his centre of operations and the local townsfolk. It’s here that American Made perhaps works best as a comedy, as Liman converges rural Arkansas and Central America onto a series of near misses and burgeoning suspicions that seem as much about the wider perceptual horizons of the Cold War as Seal’s specific part in it. Up until this point, Seal has never stayed in one place or space long enough for it to take a hold over him, and yet settling in Mena doesn’t reverse that so much as condense every contradictory affiliation he’s ever held to the small town South. For all that he assures his wife that he has settled down and embraced family values, Seal has never felt more aerial than when roaming around Mena, as every previous connection he has made comes back to haunt, pursue and scrutinise him by way of is charming storefronts and bucolic pastoral vistas, always under the watchful eyes of Plemons’ Sheriff Downing.
If the picaresque episodes of the first act were united by Cruise’s ability to escape the screenplay, then they were matched by Seal’s infamous ability to escape detection, which was what made him such a valuable asset to the CIA in the first place. Yet in this sustained second act all those threads also converge upon Mena and the curiosity and suspicion of its townsfolk, which turns out to be more insatiable and, eventually, more destructive, than anything he encountered over Central America. Yet the effect isn’t exactly an expose of small town politics, or an insular recourse to small town politics over global politics, so much as the sense that Mena has become the epicentre of the Cold War, at least in its Central American theatre, which indeed it was, in many ways, so far as the United States was concerned. In other words, American Made comically commemorate Mena as a Cold War theatre, only resorting to comedy to capture the sheer improbability of this fact in the first place. Accordingly, it’s here that American Made most distinguishes itself from the period simulation it could have been, since one of the reasons the CIA chose Mena from the wealth of other airstrips was that it was robust enough in its small-town ambience to allow them to simulate the kind of normality, and remoteness from the Cold War, that would enable Seal to work in relative secrecy. As a result, the more Seal’s empire grows, the more strenuously he and the film work to insist upon the daily routines of Mena continuing undisturbed around him, to the point where this second act plays as a something of a spiritual sequel to Edge of Tomorrow in its vision of a world in which total war has become so routinised that it’s all but inextricable from the diurnal patterns that undercut the film’s narrative pacing.
It’s almost an anticlimax, then, when the film shifts itself into an abbreviated third act, and finds itself moving away from Mena and back towards the rhythm of Seal’s early days with the CIA. Nevertheless, it’s impossible for the screenplay to ignore the biggest twist in Seal’s fate, which occurred when the CIA finally “discovered” that he was still involved with the Medellin Cartel, sending him to the White House only for the Reagan administration to instruct him to continue his operations with the Cartel so that they could prove to the public that Communists were inextricable from the drug trade, and that the War on Drugs and the later part of the Cold War amounted to much the same thing. Up until this point, American Made has seemed quite Republican in its affect, even if Seal’s paeans to Reagan have started to take on a bit of a parodic edge as his Reaganite empire in Mena goes to his head, and at first this last mission only seems to enhance his respect for Reagan, whose decision to perpetuate the drug trade in order to fight the drug trade outdoes even Seal’s supreme elasticity when it comes to negotiating between competing parties, and sends him back to the air over Central America with more amped-up enthusiasm than ever before: “You could say I helped build an army, defend a country, and build the biggest drug cartel in the world.”
It’s something of a rupture, then, when the White House promptly abandons Seal after his image is captured in one of their surveillance photographs, leaving him at the mercy of the Medellin Cartel and forcing him to move from motel to motel even as the FBI rapidly erases any record of having ever employed him. Throughout these final scenes, Seal’s perky charisma never leaves him, and in fact survives him in the video cassettes that he records and that provide the final note to the film after he is inevitably executed by Medellin agents. Yet these video cassettes, and their final affirmation of participatory Republican charisma, are utterly fictional, and eventually feel like something of a fantasy, as if American Made were ultimately performing something like a dissociation of Republican affect from Republican ideology, playing with the same participatory swagger as a right-wing film that could have conceivably been made at the time, but with more scepticism and reservations about exactly what that swagger involves. And that’s the perfect milieu for Cruise, whose characters so often seem Democratic in sensibility but Republican in affective intensity, torn between a certain way of thinking and a certain way of feeling that is what ends up constituting Seal here, if only, quite suddenly, in retrospect. As the film ends with Seal’s handler having a sudden brainwave – “We get the Iranians to arm the Contras” – and the credits roll over footage of Reagan and then Bush denying their involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair, it’s hard not to see a subtle parody of the sentimental conclusion to Argo, in one of the most deceptively deft and deconstructive of recent Cold War period exercises.