During a particularly tense moment in American Made, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) asks his wife, “Do you trust me?” When she snaps, “No,” Seal changes tactics, asking, “Do you love me?”
Questions of love and trust run through American Made, which tells the true-ish story of Seal, who in real life went from being a pilot for TWA to running planes for the CIA, the DEA, Latin American nations, drug cartels, and Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Although the plot involves powerful people in the late 1970s and early ’80s, this is absolutely Seal’s story. He narrates it, often directly into a camcorder, and, as the storyteller, he fashions himself into a hero. His rise to riches harms countless others, but he expects us to accept his tale as that of a plucky, lucky go-getter. And if we can’t trust him, maybe we’ll love him enough to believe it.
American Made uses a number of tricks to overcome our skepticism, starting with Cruise’s performance. Despite a character-accurate Louisiana accent, Cruise never disappears into the role. We always see the glamorous mega-star, full of bravado. One senses that Seal fancies himself a super-spy—something like Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, another Cruise character. Combined with director Doug Liman’s use of montage and clever editing, which at one point juxtaposes footage of Ronald Reagan’s “just say no” speech with scenes from his Hollywood movies, American Made has a jaunty tone that begs viewers to laugh at Seal’s antics, despite the fallout they cause.
This carefree spirit puts the movie alongside a number of recent films about charismatic hucksters: American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short. These movies make their con men likable, even when they do terrible things and come to horrible ends.
King Solomon had everything that Barry Seal desires.
Seal knows that he and his employers’ nation-building and fortune-growing schemes result in others suffering, but he refuses to focus on that. As the teller of this tale, Seal shows his audience what he wants them to see. Liman and cinematographer Cesar Charlone underscore this subjectivity by employing handheld cameras that constantly shake or zoom in and out. In the hands of directors like Paul Greengrass or John Cassavetes, such shots add verisimilitude; here, they remind viewers of the storyteller’s limited perspective.
Seal’s desire to portray himself as a good ol’ boy with gumption—he sums up the Nicaraguan civil war by talking about “a bunch of commies” who “called themselves ‘Sandinistas’”—renders the proceedings inconsequential. Lives are lost, billions of dollars are exchanged, and nations built and rebuilt, but the characters treat the whole thing as a game. Or at least that’s how it looks from their perspective.
Watching American Made, one recalls the refrain from Ecclesiastes that references wealth: “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” King Solomon, Ecclesiastes’ likely author, had everything that Barry Seal desires: power, money, respect. But after enjoying and examining them, he dismisses these signifiers of worldly value as “Meaningless! Meaningless! …Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Ecclesiastes may lack snappy music (well, besides “Turn, Turn, Turn”), but its poetry comes to the same conclusions as American Made: “This too meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes is a difficult book, almost nihilistic save for a moral addendum at the end. And yet, like American Made, it’s all about perspective. Solomon has everything that one wants in the world, but nothing of eternal value. It’s the same principle Jesus invokes when he asks, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Although it revels in Seal’s charisma, American Made ultimately asks the same question, particularly in its sudden and violent climax, which highlights the limited value of what Seal has attained.
Barry Seal wants us to trust his telling of the story because we love his charisma, his adventures, and the power he gains. But the film’s ending supports Ecclesiastes’ teaching that love for these things is misplaced, that our pursuit of them is comically fruitless. Solomon concludes that a meaningful life is one in which we “Fear God and keep his commandments.” This life of love and care for one another—life to the full, as Jesus describes it—is worthy of both our love and trust.