American Made doesn’t entirely stand on its own as a movie, but it provides some kick for two reasons. One is the project’s based-on-fact nature: Its cavalcade of unlikely encounters and officially sanctioned malfeasance—peopled by a cast of historical figures that includes future jailbirds Oliver North and Manuel Noriega and future president George W. Bush—is truly incredible. This is the story of Barry Seal, a former TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot who flew drug shipments for the Medellín cartel and managed to get involved in the Iran-Contra scandal (and, the movie strongly suggests, was working at the behest of the CIA, too).
The other reason American Made is frequently lively is the presence of the actor who plays Seal, one Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. It may have snuck up on us, but Tom Cruise has now been a major movie star for almost 35 years (Risky Business came out in ’83), a longer run at the top than many legendary stars. Cruise is good in American Made, throwing himself into the film’s gonzo narrative with his usual gung-ho energy. This is a black comedy, and irony isn’t Cruise’s most natural mode, yet by playing Seal as a slightly dimwitted cheeseball on the make, he gets into the movie’s you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff spirit.