Following Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828, New York Senator William L. Marcy uttered the phrase, “To the victor belongs the spoils.” While the meaning behind Marcy’s phrase is straightforward, it can also be applied to Doug Liman’s engrossing American Made, a triptych around South America.
The Reagan Administration’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s was widely publicized by the media. Gary Spinelli’s script takes us back to the 1970s and introduces us to commercial airline pilot Barry Seal played with zeal and vigor by Tom Cruise. At the time, Seal was flying commercial routes for TWA when he is cornered by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions over South America for the CIA.
Cruise just lights up the screen. His commitment to the character, the surroundings and the supporting cast around him is amazing. And Liman knows exactly how to tap into Cruise’s energy. Cruise and Gleeson are a hoot to watch together, even when they’re talking about deadly-serious situations, there’s still a twinkle. Neither upstages the other, though they are completely capable of holding their own on the screen.
Though the focus is on Cruise, the supporting cast does not go unnoticed. Sarah Wright is pitch-perfect as his wife, Lucy. At first, she was unassuming. Once she got wise to the situation, she was on fire. We cannot forget about Caleb Landry Jones’ performance. He was absolutely first rate as JB. Jesse Plemons has a smaller role, but it was nice to see him in a bigger film.
The real highlight in this narrative is Spinelli’s script. It recognizes the dangers involved in what Seal was doing. The dangers exposed through the film are amplified by the humor. This was the perfect vehicle for Liman as much as it was for Cruise. Liman’s experience building characters who float in and out of various parts of the story, such as in Swingers or Go while his globetrotting adventures with Bourne made him the perfect match for Cruise’s own globetrotting adventures.
A lot of the humor also comes at the expense of real – world figures that are depicted throughout the film. Hindsight being 20-20, this is to be expected in a recounting of a story which is ‘based on a true lie.’ Or so the film’s tagline reads.
The way Liman and cinematographer Cesar Charlone shot the film was also very unique, interspersing VHS ‘found footage’ with the rest of the film. The stylized feel lent gravitas to the era the film was trying to depict. The editing also depicted the rapid pacing of the story, carrying the underlying dangers.
American Made is the type of film that plays to its strengths and doesn’t mind doing so. It is very much reflective of today’s geopolitical tensions while remaining true to the spirit of the times the film is set in. Spinelli’s script and the performances accurately reflect the 1970s and 1980s. The technical expertise of the cast and crew on both sides of the camera reflect the authentic nature of the film.
Marcy’s “to the victor belongs the spoils” was meant to imply that goods or benefits were taken away from the loser. The problem with history is that it is written by the victors. Liman, Cruise and Spinelli ensure that both sides get a fair shake, even if that’s now how it played out on the world stage.