American Made

AMDirector: Doug Liman

Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, and Jesse Plemons

I had an idea once for a movie where I’d pluck out a completely inconsequential character from a well-known film, and then base an entire story around that character. What I love most about this idea is that the film I write would stand firmly on its own two feet with no overt mention to the protagonist’s connection to the larger, famous work. Only those who pick up the subtle clues would ever even be able to connect them.

I had a similar experience watching American Made. I’ll admit that I am not up to date on my drug cartel history, but I do watch and love the Netflix series, Narcos. So as I’m sitting, watching, and enjoying Tom Cruise’s new film American Made, I suddenly start thinking, “I know the name Barry Seal. Wasn’t he in an episode of Narcos?” And then two things happened: 1. I felt what it would be like to have that revelation of realizing a frivolous character from one story is now the subject of another, and 2. I realized I knew everything that was going to happen in this movie. I loved realizing the first thing, but I was not as excited about realizing the second one.

The good news is I love Tom Cruise, and he made up for all the predictability that followed. So it turns out, yes, this is the story of Barry Seal – they guy from Season 1, Episode 4 of Narcos. Seal, played by Tom Cruise is a TWA pilot, who as America is in the grips of the Cold War during the 1970s catches the attention of a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhnhall Gleeson). Seal has been smuggling Cuban cigar exiles into the states as a means of additional income, and Schafer sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative. Schafer offers Seal a chance to work secretly for the government, taking reconnaissance photos of South American guerilla camps and delivering bribes to Nicaraguan and Panamanian politicians and military personnel for information.

Of course, the CIA doesn’t pay much, and Barry wants nothing more than to make a great life for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. That being said, it doesn’t take long for the Columbian drug cartel headed by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and an up-and-coming-kid Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) to take notice of an American spy plane running in and out of South America on a pretty regular basis. The cartel sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative…rinse, wash, repeat (see what I did there?).

The movie spends the rest of its focus watching Seal bounce back and forth between running drugs for the cartel and informing on “Commies” for the CIA. Meanwhile Seal just keeps getting richer, and richer and richer.

Still, the movie doesn’t jive like I wanted it to. I think director Doug Liman and screenwriter, Gary Spinelli bet on the fact that most people who see this film wouldn’t have seen episode 4 of Narcos. I also think they knew Tom Cruise in a plane is something people enjoy. Additionally, this marks the second collaboration between Liman and Cruise after 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, or was it called Live Die Repeat? No one knows for sure. Anyway, that was a great movie and Liman directed the hell out of it, a film which was basically Groundhog Day meets Terminator and has Cruise reporting to Brenden Gleeson. So why couldn’t Doug Liman direct the hell out of a movie that is basically The Wolf of Wall Street meets Top Gun where Cruise is reporting to Dohmnall Gleeson? He can and he pretty much does. Liman gets a great performance out of Cruise, and a little birdy tells me there are at least two more Liman/Cruise joints in the works. This is good news.

What doesn’t quite jive for me in this film are the circumstances, a deficit that I think mostly falls on the writing. There is a lot of coincidence and shrugging off of impossible situations in American Made. At one moment Seal is in a Columbian prison as government agents are about to raid his New Orleans home with his family asleep inside. The next moment, Seal and his family are living in Arkansas and they own an airplane hanger. It’s not quite that sudden, but it’s pretty close. Gleeson’s Agent Schafer character is also oddly underdeveloped and while I understand his persona is supposed to be mysterious, he seems contradictory and far more dramatic than necessary. Lastly, Jesse Plemons is in this movie as a local sheriff, and I have to assume there is a cache of great footage of him on the cutting room floor somewhere because what’s left of his character is barely an arc.

All in all, Cruise continues to entertain and gives more than just an action-packed performance. In a fall season where all there is to see is It for the 10th time, this is a worthy film that has far more high points than low ones. B

American Made is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Bridge of Spies

BridgeDirector: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, and Austin Stowell

Recently Tom Hanks went on The Tonight Show and did a Kid Theater skit where he performed scripts written by elementary school kids who were told to write a scene for a movie called Bridge of Spies.  Most of them involved either a bridge made of spies or spies on a bridge.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies and a group of spies met on a bridge.  This is no slight on the actual film’s screenplay as the scene is actually quite riveting, but more a testament to this film’s transparent nature in that what you see is what you get – quite rare for a “spy” film.

This is the fourth pairing of Steven Spielberg as director and Tom Hanks as actor.  Each film they’ve done together has been a period piece of sorts with a true story at its core.  Bridge of Spies is no exception.  In it, Hanks plays James Donovan, a partner in a successful New York insurance law firm at the height of the Cold War.  When a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI, Donovan is recruited to provide a “credible defense” in a trial designed to railroad this spy right to the electric chair.  Donovan’s duty as an American trumps his hesitation for taking a losing battle and he agrees to take the case.  From this point on, Spielberg’s film ceases to be a “did he or didn’t he” film (he did), and begins a fascinating exploration into the murkiness, hypocrisy, and complexity of espionage during one of American history’s most turbulent periods.  Abel is not depicted as an enemy but as a cautious, thoughtful man doing an important job for his country in a time of unrest.  His story is paralleled by another depicting the training and deployment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot for the CIA who is later shot down in his spy plane over Russia.  In the wrong hands, these stories could come across as preachy or downright absurd, but thankfully the Coen brothers crafted the screenplay and tell an intelligent story about perspective rather than a heroic tale of valor.  In one early scene, Donovan is seen discussing one of his client’s responsibilities for paying a claim to a victim who wants five times the settlement because a driver ran into five motorcycle drivers.  Donovan goes on to explain that to the victim five things happened but according to the insurance policy, one thing happened.  This conversation holds new meaning when Donovan’s life as one type of lawyer leads him to act as an entirely different type of lawyer and that two sides of a seemingly black and white conflict are actually one.

Powers’s and Abel’s stories converge with a prisoner exchange plot that holds Donovan firmly in the middle.  Hanks embodies Donovan’s struggle with great appeal.  He is born to play roles like this and Spielberg knows it.  In fact, Spielberg’s cinematic voice has been diminished lately by the enormous shadow cast by his actors and screenwriters.  With Lincoln it felt like Spielberg simply had to put the camera on a tripod and let Daniel Day-Lewis have his way with Tony Kushner’s script.  The same formula is at work with Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg is certainly gifted at his attention to detail as this film drips with authenticity, and some of his transitions are enlightened and stark, but ultimately this film’s success rests on Hanks and the screenwriting of Charman and the Coens.  Also, Rylance’s subdued performance as Abel is understated but pivotal. Several times throughout the movie, he is relegated to utter the schmaltzy phrase, “would it help?” as a little inside joke between Donovan and himself, but it works every time.

Furthermore, Bridge of Spies follows some conventional storytelling arcs, but the spy genre is not one easily transformed.  The key to Bridge’s success is that its agenda is not to trick the audience but rather to let us hold all of the cards and experience the weight of each decision that is made.  That along with some brilliant set-pieces, scenery, and top notch performances from Hanks and Rylance allow Bridge of Spies to work very well.  B+

Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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