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Cruise Control

by Ross Douthat

For the 2014 sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman persuaded Tom Cruise to step outside his comfort zone and play a sniveling, unheroic coward who gets stuck in a time loop and killed time and time again. The movie was probably the most effective recent deployment of Tom Cruise’s Tom Cruiseness to some end other than straightforward, grim-faced, high-exertion heroics: You showed up to watch the most famous ageless face in show business whinge and cower and get rubbed out by aliens every ten minutes, and the experience was pretty entertaining.

In this fall’s American Made, Liman and Cruise have teamed up again, but this time the part is less of a stretch and more of a return to long-gone form. Cruise is playing Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot and roguish Louisiana charmer who got rich flying drugs and guns around Central America in the 1980s and ended up saving his own hide (for a while) by turning informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency.

No, let me rephrase that: He’s playing the version of Barry Seal that certain left-wing investigators of our Deep State have insisted was the real one. This Seal wasn’t just a daredevil smuggler and scoundrel turned DEA informant; he was — allegedly — running drugs for Pablo Escobar and his pals with the knowledge of his handlers in the CIA.

How plausible you find this depends on your appetite for rumor, hearsay, and conspiracy. The movie doesn’t much care whether you do believe its story (one of its taglines is “based on a true lie”), and while it has tacitly left-wing politics, the messaging is secondary. Mostly it has a larkish, root-for-the-rogue spirit in which you’re supposed to roll your eyes at how easily Seal exploits the anti-Communist fervor of Reagan-era Washington rather than shake a fist at the CIA’s machinations.

This isn’t the Gary Webb “Langley and the Contras caused the crack epidemic” fantasia that got the feature-film treatment a few years back, in other words, nor is it a variation on Liman’s earlier Bourne Identity, in which the agency is portrayed as impossibly omnicompetent and ruthless. Here the CIA is essentially clueless, the Contras are mostly ethnic stereotypes, and there’s no time spent at all on the drug trade’s stateside impact. The only people with plans that actually work are Seal and the cartel, and the only question that we’re asked to care about is how long he can keep playing everyone against one another before he gets a bullet in the head.

The agency is represented by Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, a little too Gaelic for a preppy part), a handler who sidles up to Seal when his TWA career is stalling and lets him know that there’s another possibility for a pilot of his talents: He can fly around Central America, taking pictures of Communist encampments, for Uncle Sam and a pot of money. That pot, though, turns out not to be quite deep enough for a man with a wife and kids and grand ambitions, and Seal soon stumbles into a better racket: flying cocaine back to the States from Medellín on his agency-supplied plane.

The agency officials don’t endorse this course of action, but they don’t fire him, either. They want to expand their operations in Central America, and Seal’s skills are useful enough that they turn a blind eye to his side business. So they set him up with his own private airport, in Mena, Ark. — the strange little place where far-left and anti-Clinton conspiracies converge — and put him to work ferrying guns to Nicaragua and trainees back to the U.S., accepting that he’ll also be using these routes for not-quite-legal cargo.

What they don’t anticipate is how much of it he’ll carry, how rich he’ll get — he and his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright, nice to look at in an underwritten part), are so overwhelmed that they end up stuffing cash into hay piles in their barn — and how all the money will make it impossible to keep the operation secret. Soon his feckless brother-in-law is attracting local-sheriff attention, the DEA is circling, and we enter the phase of the movie that does have clear factual grounding, when Seal has to add “drug informant” to his growing list of job titles.

As a story, American Made is entertaining but forgettable. Liman’s dad was the counsel to the Senate’s Iran-Contra investigation, but the shaggy-dog plot and cynical view of U.S. foreign policy don’t display any hint of expertise beyond what you’d expect from Hollywood. The scuzzy vibe belongs to a middling caper movie, and we’ve seen antiheroes get rich and then get way over their heads many times before.

What we haven’t seen as much recently, and what justifies the movie, is Tom Cruise’s returning to his ’80s roots. Barry Seal is a characteristic Cruise performance, but in a style that he has seldom used since he reached middle age: not the intense action-hero mode that he so often favors now, but the cocksure charmer, the handsome guy who winks at you while he gets away with it, who appeared in different variations from Risky Business and Cocktail and Top Gun and even Rain Man down to his time-to-grow-up swan song in Jerry Maguire.

This guy, it turns out, is still a guy that Cruise can play — and if anything, he’s a little more charming with the faint signs of age you can see around the edges of his Dorian Gray good looks. And even in an only-okay movie, nostalgia is a kick: It’s nice to have this Tom Cruise back.

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