A friend asked what this movie was about and I said ‘Contragate’. Being a baby-boomer he just nodded sagely, but had he been a youngster I would have been hard up for a ready synopsis, except perhaps to say that it was the most bizarre, convoluted and downright disgraceful episode in American political history.
Let’s see. I think it goes something like this: in the early 1980s the Reagan administration wanted to overthrow the democratically elected socialist government of Nicaragua. The CIA came up with the idea of arming the anti-government rebels – the Contras – by using American drug-runners to deliver the guns, which necessitated turning a blind eye to the fact that the drug-runners were in cahoots with Panamanian and Colombian drug cartels and bringing back shitloads of cocaine on the return flights and making shitloads of money. Eventually the shit hit the fan and phase one of that operation ended with a turf war between the DEA, the FBI, the BAFT (the quaintly named Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco) and the CIA, who ducked for cover, destroyed all the evidence and denied everything before coming up with phase two: raise money for the Contras (who seem, incidentally, to be more interested in fancy American consumer goods than in fighting the Sandinistas) by secretly selling guns to America’s sworn enemy Iran, to whom the sale of arms was strictly embargoed.
American Made is basically the story of phase one, and it’s told from the point of view of Barry Seal, the hotshot pilot initially recruited by the CIA but of whom everyone – all those acronymic organisations AND the nasty drug cartels – wants a piece.
Tom Cruise plays Seal as cocky and unscrupulous with a dash of Good Ole Boy southern charm. Having recently watched that two-hour documentary about Scientology on SBS I had more or less vowed I’d never do anything to even slightly enrich Tom Cruise ever again, such as going to see any movie with him in it. But I weakened, because I’m so fascinated by the whole Contragate imbroglio, and I have to admit that Cruise’s performance is note perfect in capturing the sheer psychedelic craziness of the whole enterprise. Perhaps his other job as the Number Two Grand Poobah of Scientology helped him ‘find his character’.
Early on in the story the CIA sets him up in a tiny backwoods town in Arkansas, where he proceeds to set up dozens of banks and shell companies in order to launder and stash his ill-gotten gains. The buildings on Main Street all get a facelift and a shiny new plaque announcing the supposedly respectable financial business being transacted within. The local townsfolk, even the sheriff, are delighted with their newest resident and his lovely wife and kids.
At one point he’s making so much money so fast he no longer has time to get it into his private banks or even to find hiding places for it inside his own expanding estate. The cash tumbles out of wardrobes, spills out of drawers and generally gets in the way of good housekeeping. At one stage his dogs dig up a bag of cash he’s buried in a hole in the ground. His wife mentions there are $100 bills blowing around the yard. ‘I’ll sweep ‘em up later,’ he says to her.
The path of true skulduggery never runs smooth, needless to say, and his little empire is threatened at various times by a dangerously flaky young brother-in-law, the increasing demands of the drug lords and the threat of abandonment by his fair weather friends in the government. He gets beaten up and thrown in jail, but someone always seems to need the services of ‘the gringo who delivers’, as he calls himself, and he gets away with it by the skin of his teeth. He can scarcely believe he DOES get away with everything he gets away with, and more than once exclaims chirpily to the video camera on which he’s recording his amazing adventures: ‘Goddammit if this isn’t the greatest country in the world!’
Everything strikes the right note: the music, the colour, the characters, and, I realise in retrospect, the title: American Made. Because this is a world more fantastic than Disneyland, way more bizarre than Las Vegas, and it could only have happened in America.
This review was originally published on Facebook in December 2017