There Will Be Criticism: American Made
By Simon Tessmer
Editor's Note: There Will Be Criticism is a weekly column by Simon Tessmer, a film student at MSU. Tessmer's other reviews can be read on his blog. Tessmer's criticism will be published on Fridays. Check out his last weekly column on "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" here.
American Made is a well-executed, energetic crime film that excellently captures the selfish greed of an outwardly charismatic protagonist, in the same vein (not caliber) of Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013). Combining formal cleverness and a loose grip on historical accuracy, director Doug Liman succeeds in subverting the classical Hollywood form in creating a movie that both darkly entertains and critiques the capitalist forces that contextualize its production.
Made stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a commercial pilot recruited to the CIA by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) for courier purposes with Panama in the late 1970s. After establishing himself as reliable, Seal receives an additional offer from the Medellín Cartel to smuggle drugs into the US on his return flights, which he accepts, launching a series of increasingly complicated entanglements with Reagan-era international relations, taking his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and his children along for a frenetic ride.
Much of Made’s energy erupts from its visual style. Central to the film’s narrative is a series of video tapes Barry self-records, and in echoing that importance and capturing the period cinematographer César Charlone employs a light video-esque color scheme across the whole of the film. This manifests subtly in the outlines of objects having a dim multi-colored sheen, and combined with a largely handheld camera and long lenses, Made’s visuals convey a claustrophobic vibrancy that interplays nicely with Cruise’s aggressive charisma.
Thematically this movie is less interested in exploring accurate historical events (the real-life Barry Seal had a quite dissimilar experience than the one Made portrays) and has more to say about the increasing complexity and amorality of imperialism in a technological world. By heightening and dramatizing Seal’s story, Liman focuses the bipolar extremities of competing national capitalist interests on one man, and to that end effectively conveys the impersonal corruption inherent to United States democracy.
Liman accelerates this point by making a markedly traditional Hollywood film: Made features a charismatic white male star lead in a narrative that focuses on his misadventures in wealth accumulation and fear of the foreign other, while deeply sidelining the importance and agency of women. This opens the possibility of Made turning its capitalist critique on itself, as it highlights and thematically subverts the filmic tropes forged in Hollywood’s capitalist flames.
Important to the moment both cinematically and politically, Made delivers a two-handed punch of entertaining cinema and ideological critique. As its title suggests, Liman’s film is thoughtful about American-ness and the moral framework it entails, and in ways both subtle and overt it undermines both the nationalist fervor popular in contemporary politics and the dominant cinematic system in which it positions itself.