America loves to bastardize its own name. What, really, is “American”? What makes America great? If you add cranberry to apple pie, is it any less American? Or less delicious? I would argue it needs that bitter flavor to bring out its maximum flavor potential – its maximum Americanness! The word also just makes for a good move title, like American Sniper/Assassin/Gangster – each of the superlatives transform the definition slightly. To be an “American [INSERT WORD]” movie, you’re essentially making a statement from the get-go that what you’re about to see is something that should only be possible in this country, and thus it’s going to be a great story.
So that brings us to Tom Cruise’s latest film, American Made. What is director Doug Liman telling us from the get-go? Why make the very obvious choice to lead with American? After all, it’s a story about drugs, guns, and money laundering – yes, all very American things. But the confluence of these in American Made is what makes it truly earn its name, more so than most of movies bearing the moniker. In this movie, American is to do reckless things without having trust in whatever side you’re playing for, and often you may not even know what side you should be on. American is greed, war, balls, lies, above and below the law. American is Tom Cruise, who at 55 is able to play a 40 year-old with no questions asked. And American is Hollywood, which gussied up this based-on-a-true-story but didn’t sell out to tell a war story, or a rags-to-riches story. No, here Hollywood went for the jugular and it paid off.
I recently reviewed another based-on-a-true-story that’s being released this week: Battle of the Sexes. I didn’t like that film. And yet, it’s very similar to American Made in a lot of ways: lighthearted tone with a serious message, big star vehicles, 70’s hairdos. Both movies set out to criticize something modern by using 30-year old true stories. In Battle of the Sexes, it is gender discrimination. In American Made, it is government ineptitude. Where American Made succeeded, however, is in not making it a fluff family movie story (although drugs and guns don’t play to that) where character motivations and backstory were completely unclear. Cruise’s Barry Seal wants adventure and money. He started as a lowly TWA pilot running a small trafficking operation, but the chance to amplify his risk-taking and money-making led him to collaborate with both the CIA and the Medillan cartel. This made complete sense to me. Try to explain why Bobby Riggs wants to propose this match with Billie Jean, the central plot of the movie. Much harder, right? I digress.
American Made is one of the most cynical movies I’ve seen, and we’re in a cynical time of our history. You can’t help but parallel the mystifying decisions by Reagan to supply ill-prepared rebel fighters with weapons – that ultimately fuel a drug war – with the dozens of blunders going on today. You root for Seal because Cruise is so charismatic, but basically this guy made a lot of bad shit possible. He transferred cocaine by the plane-full to the U.S., made ‘friends’ with Pablo Escobar, and yet he was a loving husband and father. In your desire to like this character, you find yourself in some age-old American conundrums: loving freedom but ignoring the costs to get it; praising bravado but fearing it when it roots itself in the White House.
The ending is not a happy one, but then again you have to have good guys and bad guys to have some real skin in the game. In this America, everyone’s just faking it until they make it. And that’s when you realize this movie nailed the title.
Is this the future of good American storytelling? Have we lost all of the innocence of American Pie? With movies like American Assassin tanking, I was thinking there might just be a crisis of American overconfidence in moviemaking, and audiences are sniffing this out. We don’t want to be told how badass we have to be to be considered American. We don’t want the bad guy to always be Muslim or Russian. Our definition of what an American movie is has changed. We might be the good guys AND the bad guys.
You can’t go through a good TC movie without some well-timed laughs. Cruise does this better than most, when he’s got a face full of cocaine and bikes away from a suburban home after crashing a plane, or when he coolly tells his wife they’ve got until dawn to move out of their house. He’s the master of bravado, and the Barry Seal character benefits from its portrayers real-life persona.
Meh. We all mourn for American innocence. For a man whose story can only end in death. But that’s not this movie’s style. It shies away from the melancholy in favor of a tight story and strong messaging.
Latest posts by Craig Schattner (see all)
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – That Sums It Up - November 10, 2017
- American Made – Making ‘American’ Great Again - September 29, 2017
- Battle of the Sexes – Billie Jean is not my lover - September 18, 2017