The War on Drugs is one of the longest battles in American history. In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one, “ vowing combat against drug producers and dealers. Forty years and many billions of dollars later the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
The only winners in the drug wars appear to be filmmakers who have mined a rich vein of stories from the decades long battle.
This weekend Tom Cruise stars in the latest tale from the War on Drugs, “American Made,” the real-life story of Barry Seal, adrenaline junkie and TWA pilot. The story begins in 1978 with Seal mentally on autopilot and looking for thrills. Caught smuggling cigars into the United States, the CIA senses his potential and hires him to take reconnaissance photos of Soviet-backed insurgents in South America.
“The work is covert,” says his recruiter, Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson). “If anyone finds out about it, family, friends, your wife, that would be a problem.”
What begins as a safe and profitable adventure takes a dangerous turn when he becomes a courier between the CIA and Panamanian CIA informant General Manuel Noriega. Next he signs onto an even more dangerous assignment, running arms to the contras in Nicaragua in their battle against the communist Sandinistas.
“Is this legal?” he asks. ”It is if you do it for the good guys,” says his Agent Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson).
Seduced by the money and the excitement he also takes gigs as a cocaine smuggler for the Medellin Cartel. “I’m working for the CIA, the DEA and Pablo Escobar,” he boasts. He sees himself as “just gringo who always delivers,” but his convoluted work life and allegiances make him a person of interest not only to everyone from Pablo “The King of Cocaine” Escobar to the DEA, the FBI and even the White House.
Drug cartel stories are tailor made for the movies. Populated by bigger-than-life characters like the wealthiest criminals in history like the Medellin Cartel members, the stories have it all—glamour, drama, moral ambiguity and the primal clash of good and evil. “American Made” has all that, although played in a lower key than movies like “Blow” or “Cocaine Cowboys.” It has a lighter touch—it’s not too violent and, oddly for a drug dealer movie, has no scenes where anyone actually samples the goods—which keeps things moving along at quite a clip but sheds next to no light on its characters, its go-go 80s setting or the political mess that turned into the Iran-Contra affair.
Echoes of “Top Gun” hang heavy over Cruise as the cockpit king Seals. He’s all teeth and grins, a charmer who can talk his way through almost any situation. He has nerves of steel and high-flying greed, a combo that should give us a compelling anti-hero but instead Cruise plays him as a decent guy who “didn’t ask enough questions.” Didn’t ask enough questions about the personal toll his work running guns and drugs for a cartel. Didn’t ask enough questions about human trafficking. He didn’t ask questions because he was greedy. He liked the suitcases of cash and fancy cars his job provided. If the movie had allowed Cruise (or vice versa) to actually explore Barry’s dark side the film might have delivered more of a punch.
There’s more character work in any episode of “Breaking Bad” or “Narcos” than “American Made’s” entire 115 minute running time but Cruise’s movie does have a sense of humour about itself that makes for an amiable, if not memorable, watch.