This Is a Movie Review: The Tom Cruise-Starring Biopic ‘American Made’ is a Rollicking Indictment of Governmental Abuse of Power

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for High Stress Profanity and a Quick Sex Montage

Release Date: September 29, 2017

Did Barry Seal live the American Dream? The marks of such an achievement are all there. The former TWA pilot rose from relatively modest means, married a beautiful woman (Sarah Wright Olsen), had three beautiful kids, was enriched by his own government, used those riches to move his family into a huge plot of land, and now Tom Cruise is playing him in a biopic. But if this is indeed the American Dream, ideals are not immune to being warped by the harshness of reality. Spoiler alert for a true story: Barry dies at the end. He still manages to accrue an insane streak of good luck, and the deadliest parts of his story are filled with mythic iconography, but his example is a stark reminder that this country’s greatness is not always so straightforward as it purports to be.

As American Made portrays him, Seal is an opportunist, but the opportunities come straight to him, from sources that are pretty hard to say no to. A mysterious CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) shows up out of the blue and offers him a deal to fly reconnaissance missions and then act as a courier to the Latin American political figures that the U.S. government covertly supports. His presence leads him into the clutches of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, who strongarm him into smuggling their product. You might think this would be the end of the road for Seal, but the U.S. is kinda-sorta allies with the Medellíns (anything to oppose the commies!).

Seal’s smuggling does attract the ire of just about every major American law enforcement agency, but he keeps sliding free. While the bulk of his work is illegal, it is also mostly government-sanctioned, even when the CIA erases his existence from their files. Ultimately, though, his government – the same one that made him very rich – hangs him out to dry. As the affairs in Latin America ultimately lead to the Iran-Contra scandal, it becomes unavoidably clear that the highest echelons of government are populated by international geopolitical criminals. And yet it is the Barry Seal’s of the world, who nominally remain private citizens, who bear the bulk of the suffering. True, he chooses to play his part and is not exactly the most upstanding person, but he is never really free to live as he pleases. His life looks pretty fun, but it is not hard to notice the gross abuse of power underneath that slick veneer.

With American Made and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, director Doug Liman is now a specialist in subverting the aura of Tom Cruise. If you know nothing of the actor’s personal life, it is pretty much impossible not to be charmed by him. And even if you do know about the Scientology shenanigans and all the rest of it, he still might win you over a bit despite yourself. Cruise cranks the charm at full throttle to get Seal out of so many sticky situations, but it only works if the powers that be say so. American Made shows that his star still shines on but also that he (just like the myth of the American Dream) only endures because powers greater than any one individual allow it to.

American Made is Recommended If You Like: Top Gun, Re-evaluating Top Gun, Deconstructing Tom Cruise, Narcos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Kilos

This Is a Movie Review: Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena Evade an Iraqi Sniper Behind ‘The Wall’

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CREDIT: David James/Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena 

Director: Doug Liman

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Sniper Bullets Whizzing By and the Expletives You Yell When Blood Mixes with Sand

Release Date: May 12, 2017 (Limited)

The Wall feels like the type of movie that should have been released at the end of the George W. Bush era, as the national tide was becoming significantly less supportive of any Middle East military efforts. But considering that the War on Terror and nation-rebuilding operations tend to have no end in sight, the premise is unfortunately evergreen. It is 2007 in Iraq, Bush has declared victory, and the war is supposedly winding down. American soldiers Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena) find themselves at the mercy of the deadly Iraqi sniper Juba, with only a makeshift brick wall to serve as protection.

The film mostly consists of a battle of wits between Taylor-Johnson and Juba, who hacks into the Americans’ local radio. Juba is in control of the situation, and he is mostly toying with Isaac until what is almost certainly an inevitable execution, making for essentially the combat version of Phone Booth. Regarding how this plays out as a cinematic thrill ride, there is certainly constant tension, but there is also constant labored breathing from Taylor-Johnson, and that is never the ideal sound mix.

The most universal truths are often best expressed in the most intimate stories, and that micro-macro metonymy is at the forefront of the tightly composed The Wall. Juba somehow knows the most relevant details of Isaac’s story, taunting him about how he just cannot leave a complete mission well enough alone. His personal struggle mirrors his country’s boondoggle. Taylor-Johnson is not the most compelling actor to bring this point across (he excels more in something more depraved like Nocturnal Animals), but a devastating conclusion ensures that The Wall gets its point across. This film is not exactly anti-war, and not even necessarily anti-Iraq War, but rightness or wrongness does not account for much when all you stand for and behind is crumbling around you. 

The Wall is Recommended If You Like: Lone Survivor, Phone Booth, the ending of Night of the Living Dead

Grade: 3 out of 5 Poetic Snipers