Sunday, 24 September 2017

Movie Review: American Made (2017)



If you’ve been following my reviews for any length of time, you’ll know that I have a rather specific approach to most of the films I cover. I try and give some breathing room for the acting and production values of each film, but more times than not, I end up talking about the general vibe of a film more than anything else; the supposed “message” behind all of it and end up judging films with that largely in mind. Well, as much as I tend to focus on the main sentiment of a given production, there are certain ideas and notions that I find myself repelled by; things like the general attitude of most ‘chick flicks’ or rather distasteful ideas concerning issues of mental health tend to set me off and make me a bit myopic in my overall critique, as if a film’s overall theme overrides anything and everything else it may have to offer. I bring this up not to start an effort to avoid such things in the future, but to once again bring whatever biases I have going into films to the forefront. And unfortunately, we have another instance of that today with a film that involves a form of commentary that I will likely never be able to take seriously. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s get started with today’s film already. This is American Made.

The plot: Commercial pilot Barry (Tom Cruise) is contacted by CIA agent Monty (Domhnall Gleeson). Monty recruits him to do some dirty jobs for the organization, starting out with running reconnaissance on guerrilla forces in South America. However, as Barry gets more involved in the criminal enterprises in Panama and Nicaragua, he soon finds himself working for both the U.S. and the drug cartels in the area. As he continues to play both sides against the middle, he and his family may have to pay the price for his dirty dealings.

The cast is incredibly noteworthy on name recognition, but that doesn’t translate so well into engaging performances for the most part. Cruise, once again playing to type as opportunistic and cocky, fills his surreal boots nicely and brings that bankable charm that was sorely missing from his last production. Gleeson as our resident spook works in that he essentially gets the plot started, and some of his interactions in the office are fun, but otherwise, not that memorable. Same thing with Caleb Landry Jones as Barry’s brother-in-law in easily his weakest role yet; after his record of scene-stealing performances, seeing him as the epitome of all things redneck isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be. Jayma Mays turns up for a couple scenes as an attorney set to bring down Barry, but that description ends up overselling her relevance to the story. She does fine in the role, but the role itself isn’t that vital in the scheme of things. Jesse Plemons gets a few decent moments as a local sheriff, and Sarah Wright might be the one of the blandest iterations of “domestic partner of the lead criminal” I’ve seen in a while.

This film’s approach to depicting the dealings of Barry Seal, from the CIA dirty ops work to the cartel, is done in a very Mitch Pileggi-esque style. While the film itself is a bit lacking in getting across the mindsets of the people involved in those dealings, save for Barry whose motivations are abundantly clear, it does particularly well at getting into the ins and outs of his operation. The way the film flies through his ‘career progression’, going from a one-man operation into a larger enterprise, is eerily reminiscent of Pileggi’s work with Scorcese in the details that are shown. However, that’s more to do with style than substance; as much as this breezes through the finer points of Barry’s smuggling and the tightrope he has to walk between pleasing the CIA and the cartel, it’s less intricate and more lucky. That’s likely part of the point, considering how an average Joe commercial pilot became one of the bigger political influences of the early 80’s, but getting into those details would have helped.

Unlike the visual style, which is incredibly confused and not helping anything, starting with the camera. Doug Liman appears to be trying to ape his Bourne cohort Paul Greengrass because Liman and cinematographer C├ęsar Charlone have an allergy to keeping the camera still at any point. Relentless shaky-cam abounds here, which along with being a bit painful to look at for too long also doesn’t make any real sense for this kind of story. Shaky-cam, for as much as I’ve railed on it in the past, has a purpose and when used in the right context, it can be incredibly effective. Said context is usually in relation to some form of thrills, the unsteady frames emphasizing the chaos and tension going on within. As this story isn’t in any way tense or suspenseful, going more aloof and tongue-in-cheek, it doesn’t feel like it belongs here, beyond the obvious explained-by-many-before-me reasons. But that isn’t even the worst of it; that comes in when you realize that the film’s production style doesn’t mesh with handheld camerawork either. Aside from the scenes with Barry, we get many media collages to bolster the film’s take on American culture and economics; lots of Reagan, lots of guns, lots of ego. It can get downright slick when coupled with Cruise’s voiceover, giving insight into how much Barry has latched onto the American Dream, but that slickness ends up clashing with the intentionally-wonky photography. It’s rare that I see a film that is this stylistically confused.

Thankfully, that’s all that this film seems to be confused about because this film isn’t exactly hiding its main point behind any smokescreens. Instead, it is rather upfront in how it depicts American ideals, especially in conjunction with foreign policy. With how insane the U.S. political scene is nowadays, people tend to forget that what Reagan ended up pulling in the 80’s affected a lot of what is going on right now. Hell, a lot of the bigger issues in Western society right now, namely terrorism, can be traced to U.S. intervention in Third World countries. This is shown here through the double and triple-dealings of Barry, delivering for Escobar while arming rebels in Nicaragua and snapping pics of the rebel forces for the CIA. Aiding the enemy and ally while tricking both of them; it doesn’t get more opportunistic than that. This is where the American Dream once again gets trotted out to be whipped into submission, highlighting Barry’s ideals as something that will likely get him killed if he keeps putting his and his families’ lives under his want to make in America. For as scathing as this film when discussing the Reagan administration and the strings it pulled concerning arming guerrillas and transporting cocaine, it’s still commentary on something that has become very trodden ground by now. Not that Reagan himself will ever not be an easy target, but the practice of critiquing the American Dream is something that just does not interest me in the slightest. I mean, I studied the ideals of the American Dream in high school and I don’t even live in the U.S.; that’s how ingrained the scepticism towards that ideal is. We’re not exactly wanting for more stories extolling this same notion, and with how bland a lot of this comes across, that notion is probably the most notable part of this whole film. Then again, the film makes it a point to show trickle-down economics as an actual working subset of capitalism; critiquing the Reagan era while giving validation to one of its more erroneous intentions isn’t helping things either.

All in all, it’s a decent crime biopic but not much more than that. Most of the cast feels wasted, even Cruise who may be a good fit but doesn’t exactly wow in the process, the production is jarring with certain visual aspects not at all fitting together, and while the writing raises plenty of good points concerning the values of Uncle Sam, the story itself isn’t engaging enough to give it the staying power that it should. It ranks lower than All Eyez On Me, which was certainly weak but its few high points still outdo most of what this film has to offer in terms of engaging cinema. That said, this film gets credit for still doing better at portraying its real-life story in spite of that. However, for as muddled as this turned out, it’s still better than Teenage Kicks, an even more confused movie with far more questionable subtext.

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