“American Made” is a jaunty study of a real-life rogue.
As told in the film, Barry Seal was a bored airline pilot out of Baton Rouge who was delighted to be recruited by the CIA in the late 1970s to fly clandestine surveillance missions over Central American hot spots. This led to gun-running for the Nicaraguan contras by the early 1980s, during which time he started making side trips on his own to nearby Colombia. Soon he was transporting loads of cocaine for the nascent Medellin cartel on his return flights and became ridiculously rich doing so. Even as the DEA and other federal law agencies came after him, his usefulness to the Reagan administration’s illegal war against Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government kept Seal flying high from one ironic situation to another.
Seal’s antics also set the stage for the Iran-Contra scandal, which shook the nation’s faith in Washington like nothing since Watergate and severely impacted Ronald Reagan’s last years in office.
Tom Cruise plays Seal in the movie with all the bad boy charisma he can muster. And director Doug Liman, with whom Cruise made the highly regarded sci-fi war film “Edge of Tomorrow,” maintains an absurdist sense of humor throughout his increasingly darkening, highly “enhanced” true story. It manages to be a laugh-out-loud moral comedy and suspenseful tale of deadly skulduggery at the same time.
For Liman, though, it was something more: a very personal connection to his youth. The filmmaker’s father, legendary New York attorney Arthur L. Liman, was chief counsel for the U.S. Senate’s Iran-Contra investigation, and man, did he tell college-age Dougie some crazy stuff.
“My father’s work on Iran-Contra not only helped us fact-check the story, but my father used to laugh about some of the things he was discovering,” Liman, calling from the Canadian location of his next sci-fi movie “Chaos Walking,” recalls. “So I really chased a comedic tone for this movie, because I was dedicating it to my father.”
The events of “American Made” predate White House operative Oliver North’s bright idea to finance Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista insurgents with the proceeds of secret arms sales to another of the U.S.’s boogeyman regimes, Iran’s Islamic state. But many of the same players were involved, even though Liman didn’t quite realize it when he started to read Gary Spinelli’s script.