The 1980s now seems like a remote, long-gone era, which is an odd sensation for someone like me, who lived through them as an adult. And although any past American political history seems less bizarre in comparison to what’s going on now, the 80s were pretty weird. A new film called American Made explores one notorious aspect of that time—covert action by United States intelligence against Nicaragua, a small Central American country that freaked out the U.S. Cold Warriors when its American-friendly dictator was overthrown by a left wing revolutionary movement called the Sandinistas in 1979.
The movie, written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman, uses these events as background for a wild story about an actual person named Barry Seal, a pilot who was enlisted by the government to secretly fly weapons to an anti-Sandinista group known as the contras, and who wound up becoming a player in the Reagan administration’s biggest scandal.
Barry Seal is played by Tom Cruise, who every once in a while, in between one action film or another, appears in a good movie. This is a particularly juicy part for him, because it plays, on a subconscious level, almost as a parody of his gung-ho pilot hero, Maverick, in the hugely successful 1986 film Top Gun.
Like that character, Barry Seal is an adrenaline junkie, but here he’s stuck in a dull routine job as a commercial pilot for TWA. One day he’s approached by a mysterious stranger named Schafer, played by Domhnall Gleason, who threatens to bust him for his little side business, smuggling Cuban cigars, but instead offers him a chance to work for the CIA, secretly running weapons to the contras. Seal jumps at the chance for adventure, but soon he runs up against another underground organization—the Columbian drug cartel of Pablo Escobar. They want him to transport cocaine to the U.S. in exchange for guns, and soon events spiral out of control, reaching ever higher levels of lunacy as the film goes on.
Spinelli’s script is extremely funny, and it’s obvious that Cruise is having the time of his life playing this compulsive risk-taker who finds himself almost drowning in cash while he tries to hide what he’s doing from his wife, the DEA, and his own CIA handler.
The film is not shy about its political attitude—actual clips from that era, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan introducing her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, emphasize the absurd and hypocritical skullduggery that infected American political life at that time. The confluence of actual news footage and the antics of Cruise’s character have a delicious satiric effect. Without ever saying it out loud, Liman is drawing a straight line from the corruption of three decades ago to its logical results today. The picture doesn’t dive deeply into the character of Barry Seal—Cruise plays him as a gleeful opportunist always ready for the next big score, and that’s a fitting symbol for the age.
American Made works well just on the level of comedy adventure, but the darker undercurrents make it especially worth your while.