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.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting