American history has a lot of untold facets that are begging to be explored and shared with its citizens. A big one of those is our good ol’ friends at Central Intelligence, and all of the shady, clandestine activities they performed, and most likely still are performing to this day. That’s why I love a good documentary. When somebody with the passion for the information also has an artistic talent, you can get a riveting look into true events. You’re not restricted by narrative; you’re free to explore this topic as you choose, and tell us everything we need to know about the events and the people involved. However, not all films are documentaries and are allowed such luxuries. 

“Based on a true lie” (according to the film), American Made follows the exploits of commercial airline pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) from 1979-1986. He’s recruited by CIA agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to run reconnaissance missions in South America, where he flies over and takes photos. Seal does more missions which eventually gets him on the ground and crossing paths with the Medellin Cartel. The cartel forces him to start smuggling their cocaine into the United States. While the CIA doesn’t mind, the DEA doesn’t take too kindly to the increasing drug problem in America. To avoid the authorities, Seal skips town and attempts to live low, all while his relationship with the CIA goes deeper and deeper. 

The thing about biographical films is that the actual person themselves needs to be interesting. Taking place over the span of 7 years in under 2 hours, we get a chronicle of Seal’s escapades from just flying planes over South America all the way to partying with Pablo Escobar himself. While we learn about all the things he did and the big effect he had on the drug trade, we never really get to learn anything about Seal himself. He’s very passive, just kind of doing what he’s told, going from objective to objective. His work with the CIA has him witness a lot of awful things, but screenwriter Gary Spinelli never really explores the effect it’s having on him. The problem is that he nor director Doug Liman never slows the film down. It’s, “Go, go, go,” from the opening scene, with some scenes lasting only 15 seconds. There’s so much going on here plot wise that even the 3(!) different editors couldn’t even keep up, constantly using quick and obnoxious cutaways to cover up dialogue and move to the next scene. The subject matter would have worked better as an actual documentary, because the story is clearly more interesting than the man himself. If there’s not much of a character to explore, then just give me the cold hard facts. Certainly wouldn’t have been as obnoxious. 

The sequence of events are of course interspersed with domestic life featuring Seal’s wife and children, but even those don’t do much to further his character, or anybody else’s. Cruise of course gets a female co-star 20 years his junior to play his wife. She’s played by Sarah Wright, who’s quite good, but almost has no real character. She goes from infuriated at Seal one moment, to elated the next, always changing her emotional state to whatever the plot needs it to be. I’ve noticed a recent trend of crime drama films feeling like poser Scorsese, as they’re a sprawling crime saga that’s told through numerous montages to rock music with some narration to fill us in. What Scorsese always excels at in his crime dramas is that he just doesn’t give us a stylish and entertaining lowdown of the events, but he always makes sure to actually explore the characters and humanize them. Henry Hill from Goodfellas is a terrible person who does terrible things, but Scorsese explores why he does these terrible things and how they ultimately make him feel. I never really got a sense of what Seal was feeling, aside from general paranoia near the end. Because of this, Cruise doesn’t get much to work with character wise, mostly just standing around smirking and speaking with an inconsistent Southern twang. He gets no room to really explore the character, nor really have any fun.  

Aside from monetary reasons and the fact that you wouldn’t be able to witness Tom Cruise do crazy stunts, it’s questionable why Seal’s story wasn’t just a documentary in the first place. Director Doug Liman even employed primarily documentary cinematographer César Charlone to shoot the film, much to its detriment. While this does give the film a more grounded sense, it was mostly distracting. Charlone also comes from a film background, and from the looks of this, he has a hard time properly lighting for digital cinematography. There were many scenes that looked they were shot through a filter, with a lot of light sources giving off this unnaturally faded glow around them. He also shot the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which results in a lot of awkward framing. There were many dialogue scenes where principal characters were halfway cut out of the frame while speaking, or the picture felt way too zoomed in during a lot of awkward close-ups. I honestly thought my theater was projecting the film incorrectly, but nope, it was indeed shot at 1.85:1. Upon further research, I found out that American Made is the first film Liman has shot in 1.85:1 since 1996, the rest being in 2.35:1. Charlone only shoots in 1.85:1, so perhaps it was his choice. Unfortunately, their two different styles really clashed and made for an unpleasant viewing experience. 

There’s just too much content here and not enough time. Some of our country’s past relationships with other nations is disgustingly fascinating, and one American drug smuggler is really just a tiny speck of dust on the overall radar. Therefore, you need a character that’s actually worth exploring. There’s just too much content here and not enough time in American Made. I’m sure Seal was a fascinating and morally complex man, but Liman, Spinelli, and Cruise decided to focus more on style as opposed to nuance. 


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