US, 2017, 115 minutes, Colour.
Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Caleb Landry Jones, Jesse Plemons.
Directed by Doug Liman.
It sounds more than a bit odd to use the word “rollicking” and the word “depressing” to describe American Made. Why?
The depressing part of the film is that it is all true. This is the 1970s and 1980s, the era of Jimmy Carter giving speeches about things declining in the US, Ronald Reagan coming in to talk optimistically about the 1980s, Nancy Reagan saying “say no to drugs”, but also the period of the Medellin cartels and Pablo Escobar, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the arming by the United States of the Contras and training them in America, Oliver North and the proposal for Iran to aid the Contras… Very depressing. And it makes one wonder what films about activities of the present will feature in films of 30 years time! Given the American history of 2016-17, it is somewhat rollicking already!
As regards “rollicking”, this is very much the tone and style of the film, bright and breezy, bright saturated colours for landscapes, tunes of the times, very boisterous hero with boisterous exploits. And he is played by Tom Cruise.
Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, in the Mission Impossible series and his performances as Jack Reacher despite the ironies, is pretty serious, very serious missions, impossible or not. But, as Barry Seal, the true-life action hero of these escapades, he can let his hair down, so to speak, let his inhibitions down, and enjoy himself while giving the solid impression that the hero is enjoying himself.
At the end of the 1970s, Barry Seal was a TWA pilot, enjoying turning autopilot off to disturb his co-pilot as well as give the passengers some unexpected and unwelcome turbulence, laughing all the way home. But, on the way home, he is smuggling drugs through various American cities. He is happily married, and glamorous wife (Sarah Wright), two children and his wife pregnant, a home in Baton Rouge.
Then, one day a government agent (hush-hush), calling himself Monty Schaefer (Domhnal Gleeson) turns up with files all about Barry Seal’s activities. We have already seen the political situation in Central America, especially the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan speeches (as well as some rollicking excerpts from his Bedtime for Bonzo and some westerns), so the offer is to secretly photograph hotspots. So successful is he that he is commissioned to transport gun secretly to the Contras in Nicaragua. It is an offer that Barry can’t refuse, in fact an offer that he eagerly embraces.
The trouble is that he has been in league with Pablo Escobar, so what eventuates is a combination flights, guns to Nicaragua, drugs from Columbia dropped at various centres along the way home. Schaefer assists him, and another cargo is introduced, Contras from Nicaragua being flown in to a training camp outside the town of Mena, Arkansas, where Barry and his family have not only quickly moved ahead of the law, but which provides open space for the training camp, an enormous amount of equipment care of the government and massive, massive amounts of cash coming and, eagerly banked,, being stored all over the place, even buried in the yard because there is so much.
Isn’t America great – as Barry often thinks and states.
It is all very well for Monty Schaefer to run this operation but the DEA becomes interested, so does the FBI, the local police, Arkansas government…
So, in order to avoid time in prison, Barry is persuaded to set up Escobar and associates, now in exile from Columbia, with evidence for the American authorities. Whether intended or not (one is inclined to bet on intended), Barry is exposed and becomes a target for the Columbia cartel. Barry narrates all his exploits on a series of tapes, all labelled for discovery by the authorities.
Not exactly a rollicking end to this real-life story, except that the Reagan Administration goes on, as does the Bush administration, Oliver North gets exposed – but American life, American-made, goes on.
A sardonically pacey harking back to an American past which can now be exposed.
1. A true story? American, ethos and style? Politics, drugs, missions, secrets?
2. Audience knowledge of the events, the 1970s and 80s, Jimmy Carter and the speeches about dim future? Ronald Reagan and his 1980s optimism?
3. The politics of the period, the role of Central America, Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, the Contras, US attitudes, against the Sandinistas, anti-communist? Training, weapons? The exposure? Oliver North – and the Iran Contra gate?
4. Drugs in the 1970s and 80s, Columbia, Escobar and the cartel? The American pilots and the use, smuggling guns, exporting the Contras?
5. Barry Seal, a Tom Cruise role, exuberant? The tapes and his confessions? Providing the flashbacks, his record, carrying the tapes, the final expose?
6. Barry, working for TWA, pilot, daredevil, turning the autopilot off, turbulence for the passengers, his role in smuggling? Lucy, the relationship, the kids, family, the house?
7. Schaefer, his mysterious background, arrival, challenge to Barry, his having a file on him? The drugs? Recruiting him – and the IAC? Lucy not believing him?
8. The planes, the Property in Arkansas, Drums, the Fleet, the Range of Pilots?
9. Taking the Photos, Supplying Them to the American Government? The Transporting of the Guns? The Transporting of the Contras, Their Attitude Towards Him, Wanting His Sunglasses, Hostile, Ignorant? America, the Camp, the Training?
10. The Local Sheriff, Easy-Going?, the Bank Can the Attendance, the Deposits, the Prosperity for the Town?
11. Barry and His Dealing with the Colombians, Escobar and His Henchmen, Paul Getting? The Bottom Me, the Deals, the Quantities of Drugs, the Heavy Takeoff, the Range of Flights, the Maps, the Different Places for the Drops in the Collection of the Drugs?
12. Barry, the High Life, the Amount of Money, the Storage of the Money? The Arrival of Bubba, Lucy’s Brother, His Prison Background, Reluctance to Work, the Money, His Buying the Car, the Fear of Arrest and third strike, confessing to Barry, the money, the passport, the car, the explosion of the consequences?
13. The exuberant success, the amount of money, the different hiding places, the lavish house, pool, Lucy and her response? The children?
14. The interest of the DEA, CIA, FBI?
15. The DEA, the deal with Barry, the flight, the photos of Escobar, Peter and his fear? Paul Gandhi and his joke about killing him?
16. Oliver North, the involvement, plans, government, the Contras, funding from the Roman?
17. The mid 80s, the Reagan Administration, the cozy chats, Nancy Reagan and her saying no to drugs and drink? Reagan and Communism? The television reports, Barry seen in the photos? Exposed?
18. Barry and his arrest, the Arkansas district attorney, going to the court, his community service for the Salvation Army? Lucy and her going back to Baton Rouge? His urging her to take the jewellery for her support? Her reactions?
19. Barry, the work of the Salvation Army, his caution, starting his car, avoiding the explosions? The irony of the cartel following him, his being shot?
20. The event seen in retrospect? The depressing themes? The ironic title and American exuberance?