Working together again for the first time since the sleeper cult sensation that was Edge Of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman’s latest film American Made is a tribute to both the excess of the ‘80s and gangster films like Scarface and Goodfellas.
The film tells the “true story” of former commercial pilot Barry Seal, played of course by Cruise – AKA charm incarnate. Picking up with Seal in 1978 when he’s working for airline Trans World Airlines (TWA) and as hard times hit the US economy under President Carter, the catalyst for the action is when Seal is recruited as CIA spy plane pilot by the mysterious ‘Schaffer’, played by Domhnall Gleeson.
Proving himself to be the best intelligence pilot the agency has ever seen, Seal nevertheless starts to feel the economic pressure of supporting a new family. With the agency unwilling to give him any more money, it’s not long until our hero turns his talents to drug smuggling, then gun running, and finally going back to spying for Uncle Sam again in order to stay afloat – if you believe his version of events, that is.
Whether you believe him or not is less important than how much fun the story is though, and enough of its more insane moments – i.e. the Iran-Contra Affair – have been confirmed by history for us to give Seal, Liman and Cruise the benefit of the doubt here.
A roller-coaster ride through Cold War era political intrigue, drug trafficking and the wild excess of the 80’s in general, American Made has just been released on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-Ray™, DVD & Digital, and to celebrate, we thought it might be fun to look back over the film and Escape Into American Made by counting down the 10 Most 80s Moments In The Film.
Liman wastes no time at all in establishing the setting of the film, with the universal logo shifting into the old 70’s era logo before the film proper even begins. This theme is carried over through the rest of the opening which includes news clips from the time, with vox pops from ex President Jimmy Carter laying the historical context of the film out for the audience. But really, it’s the attention to detail with the typography and the logos that stands out strongest here, capturing the energy and essence of the era’s analogue video technology and editing style.
The film doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring Seal’s time as a TWA pilot, but the little time it does stands out, if only because commercial aviation has changed so much since the late 70’s. There isn’t a security check to be seen, and not a screaming child in sight. Instead we get Cruise in his pilot uniform looking impossibly young for his age and spraying charm down the lens like a fire hose, reminding us of times when flying somewhere was more glamour than clamour.
Speaking of editing style, the film goes very hard on the zooms, making everything feel very late 70’s and early 80’s. Matching this with lots of handheld camera moves and grainy film stock, the result is effective and immediate. Liman is careful to keep the pace moving in order to please contemporary taste, yet the overall effect of the shooting style is seamless in establishing the time and place of the film, while giving the audience plenty of money shots of Cruise’s million dollar smile moving slowly toward camera.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, he is magic in this film, playing the kind of carefee and freewheeling character he gave us back in films like Risky Business, Cocktail and Top Gun that then made him the poster-boy for the wild excess and indulgence of the 80’s. This was long before he became the blockbuster action star he is today, and it’s just so great to see him taking on this type of lovable rascal character again. Set your hearts to swoon ladies and gentlemen. It’s also a real joy to see him piloting a plane again – even if he isn’t playing Maverick – and it’s all the more exciting knowing that he actually did a lot of the flying stunts in the film in himself.
It should be mentioned that the first 30-minutes or so of the film, doesn’t actually take place in the 80’s, but in the last two years of the 70’s. However, when the story finally does click over into that most amazing of decades, it does so with a big bang by introducing us to the Medellin cartel. Once these boys arrive on the scene – the triple entente of Jorge Ochoa, Pablo Escobar and Carlos Leder – things get turned up to 11 in terms of excess and indulgence. From throwing wads of cash into a bull ring to convince people to try their luck against the toros, to nude foot races with a car for a prize and not to mention the violence, drugs, corruption and dad fashion, the cartel are at once the most frightening and most exciting characters in the film.
Once again going for a more realistic look with what the characters would wear, the clothing in American Made isn’t 80’s in the same way Scarface is. Instead of decking out all the cartel members in the kind of high fashion finery, glitzy gowns and glamorous regalia you might expect, Liman has the characters looking sweaty and generally dishevelled, with the Medellin mob in particular looking more like dads at their kids’ soccer match than the leaders of the world’s biggest drug cartel. Not exactly as 80’s and excessive as you might like, but the result is that the characters feel more authentic and relateable, and less like mannequins meant to display nostalgic fashion items.
Now, it has to be said that as far as 80’s hair goes, this film showed sartorial restraint in that it chose to realistically reflect the style of the times rather than indulge us with a cavalcade of permed curls and feathered fringes – although there is quite a bit of feathering going on with Tommy boy’s hair. However, they did pay tribute to the greatest of 80’s hairstyles – The Mullet. There are only two, with a particularly greasy example of it being sported by Jorge Ochoa, but the real spotlight in terms of mulletry comes when Barry Seal’s step-brother JB enters the action, sporting what might be one of the most impressive mullets this side of Stranger Things. What makes the mullet so powerful is that unlike other cinematic mullets that manage to look cool, this one is as ratty and gross as the real variety, and it’s attached to a character that matches that aesthetic.
The Reagan Years
The action of the film amps up in stages across its run-time, and while things definitely take a turn for the excessive once the 80’s hit and the Medellin cartel enters the action, it’s not until the Reagan years where things take off into the stratosphere. Simultaneously running guns and drugs for the cartel — and guns, pay-off packets, intelligence reports, photos and actual Contra rebels for the CIA –“The Gipper” and his war on drugs is the catalyst for the more insane moments of the story. King among these moments has to be Seal being allowed to walk out of the Arkansas Attorney General’s office despite having the State Police, DEA, ATF and FBI all trying to prosecute him for his various crimes, so that he can help.
The Contras and The Sandinistas
One of the most enjoyable sequences of the film comes during this period, when the CIA asks Seal to first deliver guns to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and later bring them back to the US to be trained. The problem with this plan of course is that the Contras don’t really want to fight, they just want to make money. The Medellin cartel on the other hand are dying to kill their enemies both in government and the drug trade and are only too happy to trade guns for cocaine, with Seal only too happy to pick up some extra cash, considering the CIA aren’t paying him all too well.
This then gets even more out of control when, as mentioned above, Reagan saves Seal from prosecution by the Arkansas Attorney General so he can be a part of a sting operation flying drugs to the Contras’ enemies, the communist Sandinistas, and take covert pictures to prove the communists are in bed with the drug cartels – that’s despite the US government setting up the deal in the first place. The craziest thing about all of this is it actually happened (although perhaps not exactly as the film portrays) proving once again that when it comes to excess, no decade can hold a candle to the 80’s.
Well, it wouldn’t really be an 80’s drug smuggler movie without bundles and bundles of cash. The impossible and hard-to-imagine problem of having so much money you can’t store is a solid 80’s drug film trope and American Made deploys it with aplomb. From Seal being crushed by a cash-avalanche – or cash-alanche – to burying bags of cash in the yard only for them to get dug up by his dog, the absurdity of the situation build and builds. Barry is even given run of the local bank’s main vault. Literally, the bank building an auxiliary for all the other customers. As much as this may be a problem we would all love to have, the film makes it more than clear that, while crime might pay, holding on to that cash isn’t as easy as you might think.