Airlines have long boasted that flying is actually the safest way to travel. But not for people like you.
You’ve worked on what seems to be every single major Hollywood action film of the past three decades: Die Hard, Jurassic Park, Speed, True Lies, Air Force One, Pearl Harbour, Fast & Furious, The Italian Job, Transformers, Star Trek, Batman v Superman—just to name a few.
Seriously, the list of 146 films is unreal. Yet your legacy will forever be tied to one film: American Made, the mid-budget Tom Cruise vehicle about a reckless pilot. A film during which you lost your life in a plane crash.
Irony isn’t the right word. By all accounts, you were a consummate professional, meticulously planning each and every aerial stunt. Bad weather during production appears to be what caused your crash, in which your co-pilot for the film, Carlos Berl, also died. There’s nothing to suggest your love for flying ever led you to willingly put yourself in harm’s way. Certainly not like Barry Seal, the former TWA pilot turned CIA-backed drug/arms runner. Seal’s life seems surreal and wholly unique, even if pieces of it parallel the story of George Jung (who was played by Jonny Depp in Blow). But I’m sure, after having read the script, the story resonated with you more than the big-budget shoot-em-ups you typically worked on.
After all, the way screenwriter Gary Spenelli writes Seal, he’s a fairly sympathetic family man. He just can’t seem to say no to an exciting opportunity. Director Doug Liman doubles down on this easy-breezy attitude by keeping most of the scenes light and never letting the drama weigh down the highs: zipping through the skies with bags full of cash, dodging DEA agents in the air and paramilitary bullets from the ground. Cruise is operating at his most likeable throughout, flashing his big smile without ever coming off as cocky. He is able to convey an everyman’s shock at the opportunities he’s being given, as well as the naivety to never fully accept that he’s in over his head.
The film also does away with any precocious moralizing, which would have been easy with a character who is in bed with the U.S. government and Pablo Escobar at the same time. Instead, the film tries to maintain the same middle ground as Seal himself: recognizing the absurdity of it all without ever fully embracing the darkness.
As a result, though, the story feels a bit too much like we’re following a handsome swashbuckling Forrest Gump through an American history lesson, while the interesting parts are happening on the sideline. It says something about Seal’s role that he only appears in a single episode of Narcos—that’s how much larger and insane the world of South American drug smuggling was in the 80s and 90s (Jung, by comparison, isn’t represented in Narcos at all).
The knowledge that there was a richer world out there (narratively speaking—though, considering Seal’s tens of millions of dollars, in the literal sense, too) hurt the film (for me, at least). It makes American Made feel like a spinoff rather than an essential story. But it was still certainly worth being made. Which is small consolation, I suppose, since no film – and no amount of money – is worth the price you paid.