Tom Cruise, the C.I.A. and Cocaine Make for a Wild Ride in ‘American Made’

In one of those the truth is stranger than fiction tales, Tom Cruise stars in the action-thrilled “American Made” as real-life pilot-turned-C.I.A. operative Barry Seal, a Louisiana man who was recruited to help stop the spread of communism in Central America and ended up entangled with the infamous Medellin drug cartel. Framed by clips from a video diary recorded by the main character during 1985-1986, “American Made” starts in 1978 when Barry is cornered by C.I.A. agent Schaefer (the ubiquitous and underrated Domhnall Gleeson) about taking a job flying over unstable countries such as Nicaragua to take surveillance photos, his impressive aviation background and past as a Cuban cigar smuggler apparently make him an ideal candidate for such a mission. It also doesn’t hurt that he is supremely confident. Predictably, it’s not long before Barry gets in over his head, or, as he puts so eloquently, “Shit gets really crazy.”

After the election of Ronald Reagan, the president who made it his mission to end the Cold War, the situation in Central America becomes even more intense, and Schaefer tasks Barry with delivering Soviet-made guns to those allegedly fighting against the “enemies of freedom.” Barry, however, isn’t motivated so much by politics as he is by financial rewards. It’s not that he’s greedy, he has a growing family to support. Enter the Medellin Cartel, and a payday of two grand a kilo becomes too much to resist. For his part, Schaefer turns a blind eye to these illicit dealings as long as Barry fulfills his end of the bargain, and he even sees him rewarded with a huge piece of land in Mena, Arkansas with plenty of space for him to bury and hide bags of money. Predictably, this newcomer throwing around cash in a small town attracts the attention of the law, from the local deputy (Jesse Plemons) to the assistant attorney general of Arkansas (Jayma Mays).

Sarah Wright Olsen gives a breakthrough performance as Barry’s loyal wife Lucy. Mrs. Seal shares her husband’s enthusiasm for the finer things in life, but that doesn’t mean that her family doesn’t come first. This love for family turns out to be a hinderance after her burnout younger brother, J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones, previously Allison Williams’ weird brother in “Get Out”) turns up at their door and becomes more of a liability than any drug lord could ever be.

“American Made” is a thrilling journey that is made even more fun by Cruise and his eternal boyishness charm. Director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli throw obstacle after obstacle in his way, but our hero manages to escape danger through a mix of wit, brazenness, and pure dumb luck – Until the end, that is. As fun as it can be, “American Made” is not just another guilty pleasure action flick, as it’s something of a history lesson, recounting the events the led to the formation of a major drug trade, as well as the Iran-Contra affair. In the opening montage a clip of President Carter’s infamous speech in which he says most Americans believe that the next five years will be worse than the previous five, a statement that is sure to strike a chord with the modern audience.

American Made” opens Sept. 29 nationwide.