TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new dark comedy "American Made" was inspired by the life of Barry Seal, who in the early 1980s helped arm the Nicaraguan rebels, the Contras, allegedly under the CIA's direction. Seal is played by Tom Cruise. The film is directed by Doug Liman, who also directed Cruise in the time-travel thriller "Edge Of Tomorrow." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: So many movies have gotten so wrong what "American Made" gets so right that I could hardly believe what I was watching. It's a madcap farcical black comedy in which government agencies work at crazed cross-purposes so that ideology and business and propaganda are always colliding. And it's probably the best vehicle Tom Cruise has ever had. He plays a Louisiana-born drug smuggling pilot named Barry Seal who really lived and did much of the stuff in the film, though not in quite this way.
The role has been sweetened to fit the star, who thrives on playing amoral, buoyant, super-smooth characters, men who groove on speed and mastery and always have a ready smile. Think "Risky Business" and "The Color Of Money" and "Jerry Maguire." When the movie begins in the late '70s, Seal is flying for TWA and making money smuggling Cuban cigars. Into his life comes a redheaded bearded guy who calls himself Schafer played by Domhnall Gleeson. Schafer says he knows about the cigars but isn't there to arrest him. Instead, he takes Seal to see a beautiful little flying machine equipped with all sorts of surveillance cameras.
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TOM CRUISE: (As Barry Seal) CIA owns this?
DOMHNALL GLEESON: (As Schafer) No, no, Independent Aviation Consultants.
CRUISE: (As Barry Seal) IAC?
GLEESON: (As Schafer) Yeah. You run the company. But after hours, you work for us.
CRUISE: (As Barry Seal) It takes pictures?
GLEESON: (As Schafer) The work is covert.
CRUISE: (As Barry Seal) Covert?
GLEESON: (As Schafer) So anyone finds out about it - family, friends, even Lucy - it's Lucy, right?
CRUISE: (As Barry Seal) Yeah, that's right.
GLEESON: (As Schafer) That would be a problem.
CRUISE: (As Barry Seal) All this is legal?
GLEESON: (As Schafer) If you're doing it for the good guys, yeah. Just don't get caught (laughter).
EDELSTEIN: Domhnall Gleeson's face is chilling when he says, that'll be a problem, so deadpan but with so much menace. Why does Barry Seal go along? The Lucy mentioned is his wife. He has two kids and another on the way. Now he can do daredevil reconnaissance over El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, and the CIA will make him rich.
Well, he does get rich. But the money doesn't come from the CIA. It's from the Medellin cocaine cartel. The convolutions in "American Made" are incredible, literally, but probably true. I say probably because we'll never know the whole story. We might have if Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had finished his investigation of what became known as the Iran-Contra affair. But that was aborted when, in 1992, the first President Bush pardoned former members of his administration who knew the inner workings.
The Contras are all over "American Made" and portrayed as stumble bums. At the CIA's bequest, Seal flies them guns then bring some of them back to train in Arizona, where the agency has set him up with thousands of acres of land and even his own airport. Meanwhile - I told you it's convoluted - he's making tens of millions moving cocaine into the States under the DEA's nose.
CIA, DEA, ATF - all the acronyms get involved. In the middle of it all, comes Nancy Reagan's Just Say No To Drugs address and the DEA goes into overdrive. How does the audience view Seal's enterprising behavior? With elation. He's the film's wry narrator.
And Director Doug Liman does a beautiful job sinking "American Made" to Cruise's bopping air guitar rhythms. The handheld camera can barely keep up with Seal. He's complicit but innocent. That is, not killing anyone personally. He's helping his government and making his handsome self and pretty wife rich with money falling out of drawers.
I went to a promotional screening where the audience was so on his side that some people cheered when a harmless idiot who threatened to blackmail Seal got blown up by a car bomb. Gary Spinelli's script leaves much of Seal's life out, especially his connection to anti-communist groups which would put an ideological spin on his arming of the Contras.
But on its own terms, "American Made" is breathlessly entertaining - a fantasy of wealth and macho heroics that ends up going very bad. The supporting cast is fine, especially twitchy ginger-haired Caleb Landry Jones as Lucy's slacker brother. But of course, Cruise owns it. Sure, he overworks his features to suggest thinking along with that adorably abash trademark smile. But this movie is right in his sweet spot - the place where a go-getter goes for it and is suddenly so vulnerable, it breaks your heart.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine and its culture website Vulture. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with David Litt whose new memoir is about writing speeches and jokes for President Obama or our interview with David Simon and George Pelecanos about creating the new HBO series "The Deuce," check out our podcast. We have lots of interviews to choose from.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "OH, BABY")
GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "OH, BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.