This image released by Universal Pictures shows Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in a scene from, “American Made.” (David James/Universal Pictures via AP)

Reeling it in: Cruise flies high in ‘American Made’

“American Made”

Universal Pictures

1 hour, 55 minutes

This week sees a continuation of a couple of different trends I’ve noticed. One, this was the fourth film in a row this season I’ve seen that was of particularly high quality — not only well made, but fun to boot. That’s got to bode well for the upcoming season.

Two, this was the latest in a string of high quality, lower profile Tom Cruise projects to come out in the last few years, proving that even a mega-star doesn’t need to headline massive tent-pole movies to get hits. This week’s “American Made” follows on the heels of sleeper projects from Cruise like “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Oblivion,” and “Jack Reacher” — movies that didn’t come with a lot of fanfare or with a massive budget to recoup. unlike, say, “The Mummy.”

“American Made” tells the somewhat true story of Barry Seal, an airline pilot turned CIA operative during the wild west early days of the drug war. In the late 1970s, Seal leaves a stable job at TWA (in real life he was fired) to take photographs of rebel groups in South America for the spy agency. This work is rewarding, but with few actual rewards, and Seal’s CIA contact, Schafer, played by a beautifully understated Domnhall Gleeson, is unmoved by Barry’s pleas for a raise. “You’ll figure it out,” he assures our hero.

Soon enough, Barry does indeed figure it out, when he is recruited by a trio of gentlemen in Columbia who are looking for a way to expand their operation into North America. Thus, Barry Seal begins working for the CIA and the notorious Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel simultaneously. Before you know it, Seal and his plane, and later planes, plural, are running coke, guns, and even actual Contras back and forth from the United States, to Columbia, Nicaragua, and beyond.

Almost like an early 1980s Forrest Gump, Seal’s story wraps together such notable characters as Daniel Ochoa, Escobar, Manuel Noriega and Ollie North. Along the way, Seal, who has moved from rural Louisiana to the small town of Mena, Arkansas, has accumulated more cash than any one person can possibly launder. His 200-plus acre property is home to a bustling airport hosting teams of drug and gun runners, as well as a training ground for Central American freedom fighters preparing to defeat the commies back home.

Eventually the whole thing comes crashing down, as only such complex webs of corruption can, and Barry Seal is left to deal with the consequences of his actions.

Tom Cruise is great in this role. Different from most of what he’s done lately, there’s no place in this film for Cruise to perform his own stunts or engage in hand-to-hand combat, leaving a lot more room for him to actually act. I think that a lot of people forget, with all the action that he does, that Cruise can actually act, his terrible performance in “The Mummy” notwithstanding.

As Seal, he plays an eternal optimist, a guy who keeps smiling and chugging forward no matter how deep he’s in. “American Made” plays almost as an action comedy, though a dark one. There’s a sense of desperation there, as well, however, just under the surface, and Cruise plays it to the hilt.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s reteaming with his “Edge of Tomorrow” director Doug Liman. Liman is a director known for his ability to propel a story with a lot of humor and energy, and to maintain that drive throughout. Aside from “Tomorrow,” Liman also directed “Go,” “The Bourne Identity,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” among others. Here the director employs a 1970s style — handheld, intimate — that really adds to the whole. Unlike Tarantino’s style of aping a particular genre to an almost unreasonable degree, however, Liman is using the style in a much more honest way, to serve the story instead of as a way to show off.

With the country as polarized as it is, I’ll be interested to see how “American Made” is received. On the surface it’s merely the tale of a goofball who got in over his head, but underneath it’s a pretty sharp criticism of American policies from the late 20th century. Barry’s misdeeds are, after all, aided and abetted by the U.S. government itself.

I saw this film, however, as less a critique of U.S. policy, and more about the people who are called to implement that policy. The policy, at least as far as I could tell within the world of this film, was an honest, if misguided, attempt to do good. But secrecy and paranoia necessitated the involvement of people of ever decreasing moral character, from Ollie North, to Schafer, to Barry Seal, and even down to Noriega himself.

Liman and writer Gary Spinelli’s choice to portray everyone in the film as relatively genial is the only way to make a story filled with this many dirtbags palatable. I enjoyed this film quite a bit, and it did what every good “based on a true story” should do, which was to prompt me to learn more about the actual events behind the movie. Many of the details are fudged in favor of a narrative arc, it’s true, but in spirit, “American Made” really captures the craziness inherent in the Reagan-era drug war. This movie may not be as high profile as “The Kingsmen,” but I can guarantee it’s worth your time.

Grade: A-

“American Made” is rated R for language, violence, and sexual content.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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