From yesterday’s headlines

All of 55 and still impish in aviators.

All of 55 and still impish in aviators.

Rated 3.0

In a way, the most interesting thing about American Made is the fact that its director, Doug Liman, is the son of Arthur L. Liman, who was chief counsel for the Senate committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair during Ronald Reagan’s second term. That scandal shadows the last act of American Made, suggesting that director Liman (with writer Gary Spinelli) is continuing his father’s 30-year-old investigation by other means.

Liman and Spinelli’s movie follows the late Barry Seal (Tom Cruise). Seal was a real person, and he’d probably be pleased to find himself played in a movie by Tom Cruise (Seth Rogen might have been better casting). Seal was a pilot for Trans World Airlines in 1972 when he was charged with conspiring to smuggle explosives to Mexico. The case was dismissed, but TWA fired him anyway. After that he got into drug smuggling—marijuana at first, but eventually cocaine for the Medellín cartel. When he got busted for that, he worked undercover for the DEA, testifying against some of his former associates. After he refused to enter the federal Witness Protection Program, the cartel tracked him down and shot him dead in 1986.

This is more or less what happens in American Made. Well, more less than more. Cruise, operating in his most impishly charming bad-boy-next-door mode—and in passing, let us acknowledge that at 55 he still does “impish” pretty well—gives us a Seal who gets into secret flights not running pot, but at the behest of a shadowy figure from the CIA. That character calls himself Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson), and Seal is too naive at first to suspect that that may not really be his name. From there the Medellinistas make him an offer he can’t refuse, and before he knows it there’s so much cash rolling into his base in backwoods Arkansas that he doesn’t know where to put it all.

There’s no getting around the rollicking energy of Liman and Cruise, and American Made, like its version of Barry Seal’s career, is a lot of fun while it lasts. It’s a sort of object lesson in Agnes Allen’s Law—everything is easier to get into than out of. At each stage of the plot, Cruise’s Seal stands nonplussed a moment before shrugging his shoulders and going with the flow. Sitting in the theater, we do more or less the same. At least the experience ends more happily for us than it does for our hero, cut off in mid-sentence as he extols the virtues of the good ole U.S. of A.

Offering the semi-unsavory Barry Seal as a Reagan-era Candide may be a tough sell, but American Made gives it a good pitch. The credits open with the familiar “inspired by true events,” but the posters put it another way: “Based on a true lie.” Whether the “true lie” is what made the rounds back in 1986, or what Liman and Spinelli are handing us now, is left discreetly obscure.