American hokum

American Made

Now overtaken by far worse scandals, the Iran-Contra affair has largely faded from memory, as have its origins. Unbelievably, but widely undisputed, the US government under Reagan financed its covert war in Nicaragua by importing cocaine into the US. And this was while Nancy Reagan was at the same time running her infamous “Just Say No” war on drugs. There’s already been one Hollywood film about that shameful episode in recent US history – 2014’s largely factual and far more honourable Kill The Messenger. It stared Jeremy Renner as a journalist in the 90s who publishes details about the CIA’s operations, and is killed for his troubles.

Presumably Tom Cruise won’t suffer the same fate. Thirty or so years on the American myth-making machine is able to present those involved as heroic figures. Misguided maybe, and bit foolish, but just likeable gung-ho jocks with tousled hair and a love of adventure and money, just like us regular folks, right? As Cruise plays Barry Seal – a real-life pilot – he’s much like his Top Gun persona – just a bit older and more feral. He does his own daring-do flying stunts as usual, but didn’t, as he normally does, act as a producer. Was he worried by the film’s amorality or possible box-office reception? Probably not. In a PR clip promoting the film he says, “We don’t condone what (Seal) does… he’s just a guy who saw opportunities… this is a wish-fulfilment.” Director Doug Liman spells out more clearly why we should love him: “He sticks it to the man. He sticks it to the system.”

Right then. You can import tons of cocaine, fuel the crack epidemic then sweeping US cities, illegally transport guns, be involved in people smuggling while accepting millions of dollars from the cartels, the CIA (here represented by Domhnall Glesson) and arms dealers – so much cash that whole barns are packed to the rafters with banknotes – and still be an American hero. And you can do this all with no apparent motive beyond making a shit-load of money and impressing a dim-witted wife (a thankless role for Sarah Wright). A “naughty boy,” perhaps – but someone the makers of American Made seem to imagine we’ll all want to emulate.

At one point Seal/Cruise crash-lands his plane on a suburban street, recklessly endangering lives of residents just to evade arrest. As shown in the trailer he emerges from the plane covered in white powder and gives a startled kid a wad of hundred dollar bills for his bicycle and then speeds off. What a guy! Hilarious, sure but elsewhere we see him directly implicated in the assassination of his own brother-in-law. (So that’s how the Medellin Cartel deal with people they want out of the way? Who knew?!) But the character (Caleb Landry-Jones) is presented as a jerk, so it’s ok…

Admittedly some of the comedy does raise a smirk. In one scene the DEA, the Feds, the FBI and local police all descend on his house at the same time to arrest him, and then squabble over who has the jurisdiction. In an Arkansas court a furious Attorney General is about to throw the book at him when she receives a phone call “from Governor Clinton.” Seal/Cruise offers all the arresting officers a new Cadillac if they let him go free. They scoff in derision, but then the AG marches in with the Governor’s (yes, Hillary’s husband) instructions, and lets him go. “You should have taken the caddies,” he says…

Yes, of course we should have. That’s the point of the film. The title American Made is intended as ironic, but there’s a serious problem with its tone. Cruise just can’t help being Cruise, that’s why he was hired for the role. This isn’t a critique of a corrupted-to-the-core system as typified by the role of a succession of US Presidents, but a celebration of it – all delivered with its likeable star’s trademarked “lovable rogue” showboating style. If you want to know why the US is now in the hands of Donald Trump, the biggest criminal show boater of them all, American Made will tell you.

Now I’m off to “stick it to the man.” MA15+ from Aug 24.


ReviewRussell Edwards