Friday, September 29, 2017

American Made: The satiric veneration of a scoundrel

American Made (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for relentless profanity and occasional nudity

By Derrick Bang

The only thing more unsettling than this film, is the possibility that the truth is even worse.

Barry Seal (Tom Cruise, left) hands an envelope stuffed with cash to Manuel Noriega
(Alberto Ospino, right), in exchange for a folder containing unspecified intel: merely one
of various questionable activities that Barry undertakes on behalf of the CIA.
The notorious Barry Seal’s jaw-dropping career has long screamed for big-screen treatment, and director Doug Liman’s American Made wisely casts the saga as a personality-driven dark comedy that transforms Seal’s illicit activities into the stuff of overstated burlesque. Tom Cruise is absolutely perfect for the role, his ear-splitting grin and smug swagger delivering the charisma that everybody acknowledged was Seal’s greatest asset.

At the same time, there’s no question that Gary Spinelli’s script — he acknowledges none of the existing books about Seal — sugar-coats a lot of bad things, time-shifts others, baldly fabricates events, and outright ignores some of his subject’s worst character deficiencies. The result would play well on a double-bill with Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which similarly turned the heinous behavior of opportunistic swindler Jordan Belfort into the stuff of dark farce.

Both films are slick, fast-paced and thoroughly engaging: no question, a lot of fun to watch. Both also add an eyebrow-raising layer of sophisticated exhilaration to the illicit behavior of their respective subjects, as if to suggest they’re modern updates of E.W. Hornung’s debonair gentleman burglar, A.J. Raffles.

To be fair, Liman and Spinelli have the added advantage of what could be termed the “Barry Seal mystique”: the ongoing uncertainty that revolves around the degree to which his activities were — or weren’t — tolerated, if indeed orchestrated, by various U.S. intelligence, drug and government entities. No question: This film will be loved by conspiracy theorists, and particularly by those willing to assume the worst of the Reagan-era administration.

Spinelli goes all in, accepting and expanding upon rumors that Seal operated with the full awareness and cooperation of everything from the CIA to the DEA and those involved with Nancy Reagan’s “war on drugs.” Along the way, the saga suggests Seal’s intimate involvement with everybody from Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega, to Bill Clinton, Oliver North and the Iran/Contra scandal. Even a young George W. Bush gets a brief but telling moment (with a line of dialogue guaranteed to raise a smile).

Cruise’s distracting strut aside, careful attention must be paid to the way Liman constructs his film, most particularly with respect to the implications of his framing device. The bulk of the narrative may feel like an intoxicating roller coaster ride, but Liman carefully maintains an undertone of anxiety and outright danger.

Events begin in 1978, when veteran TWA pilot Barry has built a small-time smuggling operation involving Cuban cigars. He’s caught by enigmatic CIA handler Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who — rather than threatening arrest — offers Barry a sleek Aerostar 600 plane and full-time employment, if he’ll fly to various South American “hot spots” and take aerial photographs of unspecified “anti-American” activity.

Hey, why the heck not?

And if people keep shooting at him, well, that’s just part of the thrill.

Barry initially conceals this new “job” from his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), introduced as a traditional stay-at-home mother who doesn’t ask too many questions. That said, this dynamic is crucial to the unfolding story; Barry adores his wife and family, and Lucy loves him ... even as she grows suspicious of his increasing evasiveness. Wright shades the role subtly: Lucy isn’t stupid, and she’s wary of her husband’s eager-beaver nonchalance ... but she’s nonetheless wholly and firmly devoted.

Eventually, inevitably, Barry’s flyovers come to the attention of Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), soon to become notorious as key players in the Medellín drug cartel. They make Barry an offer he can’t refuse (under penalty of death): During his refueling stopovers in Colombia, they’ll load his plane with kilos of cocaine.

Thus, Barry becomes a CIA operative while heading south, and a drug smuggler while returning north.

His aerial surveillance photos greatly impress Schafer and his CIA superiors, who authorize the expansion of Barry’s operation, by setting him up on hundreds of acres of land — including a private airfield — just outside the tiny, distressed community of Mena, Arkansas.

This forces Barry’s hasty confession to Lucy, particularly when they’re forced to abandon their existing home — under cover of darkness — for the move to Mena. Although justifiably furious and frightened, Lucy’s ire is assuaged when Barry dumps a pile of cash at her feet ... from which point, she just goes along with everything.

Why not? If it’s tolerated by the CIA, it must be okay. Right?

Things just get crazier. Barry’s operation becomes so lucrative that he’s forced to hire four additional pilots. Schafer, in turn, “borrows” some of Barry’s land for an ambitious operation involving the training of Nicaraguan freedom fighters ... who are smuggled into the States by Barry and his fellow pilots.

All the while, Barry goes with the flow ... although Cruise’s features take on a sallow, haunted and exhausted pallor. Barry’s go-to cheerfulness notwithstanding, the tension and anxiety can’t help taking a toll.

Even at this point, Liman and Spinelli retain a tone of high comedy, most particularly with respect to the ever-expanding bundles of cash that Barry and Lucy soon are unable to store. Their “solution” will draw a smile from anybody who ever had a job with the mainstream banking community.

It can’t go on, of course ... but we can’t help being entranced by the film’s momentum.

While also worrying about the manner in which Barry’s saga is being told.

Gleeson’s Schafer is Barry’s equal in every respect: a similarly impetuous go-getter with an ill-advised tendency to act without regard to consequence. Gleeson shades him as a junior CIA handler determined to show up his older colleagues; there’s a knowing smirk in the actor’s gaze, every time Schafer expands upon Barry’s various endeavors.

As Barry admits, at one point, “Maybe I should have asked more questions.”

That’s the world’s most glaring understatement, when dealing with an obviously duplicitous snake such as Schafer.

Caleb Landry Jones is terrific as Lucy’s slimy, hateful, white-trash younger brother JB: a kid so thoroughly vile, that Barry looks like a saint by comparison. JB makes a second-act entrance into Barry’s operations, with results that aren’t terribly surprising. (It must be noted that JB is a total fabrication on Spinelli’s part ... just as the actual Barry Seal’s wife was named Deborah, not Lucy.)

Jesse Plemons, well remembered from the second season of TV’s Fargo, has an understated but memorable role as Mena’s Sheriff Downing: a man who isn’t nearly as oblivious as his quiet countenance suggests. Jayma Mays, equally well remembered from TV’s Glee, makes the most of her similarly brief appearance as Alabama State Attorney Dana Sibota.

Liman’s films always boast brisk and striking editing, and this one’s no exception; Andrew Mondshein keeps things lively, making ample use of the weird angles employed by César Charlone’s cinematography (which also displays the grain typical of the story’s retro setting).

Liman also cheekily plants his filmmaking technique firmly in the late 1970s and early ’80s, starting when the modern Universal Studios logo morphs to its appropriately older style. Christophe Beck’s orchestral underscore takes a back seat to a hilarious assortment of period-specific pop tunes, some selected for their status as brief and unlikely hits, and all used as ironic counterpoint: Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Hooked on Classics,” Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou,” Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” and many, many more.

No question: American Made — great title, just in passing — is a striking and thoroughly engaging bit of pop-culture satire, with a scathing, take-no-prisoners view of the U.S. government’s shenanigans in the early 1980s. And even if the solely authentic aspect of Spinelli’s narrative seems to be the way it concludes, how are we really to know?

This film’s what-ifs and maybes are just as enticing as Cruise’s bewitching performance.

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