The new Tom Cruise movie, “American Made,” is the most fun there is in theaters this weekend. Yet it is also a failure to reevaluate liberalism’s old hysteria about Iran-Contra.
The movie is “Forrest Gump,” but not stupid and sentimental. It’s a heist movie, but strangely held back by its ties with a true story. It’s typical liberal criticism of American foreign policy—anti-CIA (which is hard not to applaud), anti-Reagan White House (which is rather a different story), and somehow also manages to be anti-Bill Clinton, which is even further from the true story. Then it ends with a remarkably all-American conclusion.
Now, before we get to everything interesting about the movie, let’s start with a statement of fact: Everything in the movie about the CIA and the Reagan White House is a flat-out lie, made up, and of no other use than to help losers in Hollywood continue their anti-Reagan dream. The reality is, they lost, Reagan won, and the only way this changes is if conservatives abandon Reagan. Instead of parading umpteen Reagan-lite politicians, conservatives need good story-tellers. That’s where the future is.
There is nothing liberals can do to lie about history anymore. Nobody cares about what they have to say. Even Kennedy shows nowadays criticize the royalty of American liberalism. The ideology of speaking truth to power that climaxed in the 1970s, whether about Vietnam or Watergate, was deeply deluded to begin with, but is also useless now. “Forrest Gump” was the farcical conclusion of that attitude to American society and film-making.
This is not to say liberals have ceased making propaganda films, but that the American people no longer care. Conservatives might want to figure out how to tell American stories that attract an audience and reward attention, but meanwhile, we have to deal with what we’ve got.
As for ‘American Made’ Proper
“American Made” is a story about how getting everything you want might not be good for you. Barry Seal, a middle-aged pilot for TWA, is bored with a routine life. He cannot fulfill his ambitions in a world of the impending autopilot. His love of flying is not without a certain mischief, but there’s no future for this in civil aviation. His clients want comfort: they fly out of expedience, not love. One gets the sense he is also too disobedient to have made a career in the military. As the ’70s come to a close, he decides to get in business with the CIA then smuggle cocaine for Pablo Escobar.
The moral core is a condemnation of the ’70s, an age of thoughtless excess. Middle-class morality failed and ’80s materialism ensued. There is some truth to that, but one wishes to see more in a movie so clearly premised on the moral heroism Americans put into into enterprise, into attaining a middle-class way of life.
Seal makes vast amounts of money he can’t really do much with and doesn’t really need. But he likes his moniker—he’s the gringo who gets things done. He likes the danger and the showy side of his ingenuity and daring. He wishes to be a manly man, one who courts dangers and reaps rewards and honors.
This is almost entirely fictional and suggests the intention of the movie-makers is a lesson about American society: something in the American character loves heroism and answers its call in strange ways. It will not go away; treated badly, it will turn criminal.
The movie manages to give you great fun in the tradition of “Air America” (Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr., 1990), but with aerial filming like you’ve never seen before. Cruise does a great job depicting the combination of ingenuity and foolishness required to get a man in deep trouble because he sees a challenge and a reward tied up together. If all this adventuring, which is as old in American cinema as Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels” (1930), speaks to you, you understand how serious the question of manliness is in American popular culture.
Liberalism Is Exhausted as a Creative Force
This brings up the old political devils that scare Hollywood liberals. Like “Air America,” “American Made” is a strange combination of liberal fascination with CIA and American crimes of excess of passion and liberal moralism about using questionable and hidden means to run foreign policy. It would be easier to believe these writers are serious about exposing the dark secrets of America’s past if they did not pretend their ideal is a world without political secrets.
So the CIA running guns and drugs into Latin America is the story. Iran-Contra is rehearsed with the same liberal moralism. All liberalism’s nuance and love of shock cannot get people to write a story that entertains the possibility that Iran-Contra was a good idea poorly executed. There imagination fails! That’s the limit of fantasies about manliness in politics for liberals, a real shame. The way forward for liberal movie-making is to learn from conservatives that social criticism requires respect for communities and families and that political criticism requires respect for the objects of foreign policy.
Liberal moralism has been exhausted as a creative force. It ended up with political paranoia for teenagers, and at that point corporate branding replaced movie-making as a driving force. But it can now turn toward serious social and political criticism in movies. More astute writers can learn to avoid these pitfalls.
The Virtues and Pitfalls of Manly Behavior
The story suggests that the CIA adventures in Latin America during this period were the consequence of a certain institutional boisterousness or irresponsibility—if not exactly manliness, then boyishness. It was the Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn approach to foreign policy, down to the dynamic duo of fresh-faced protagonists.
That’s the non-ideological critique. Here the film is at its worst. Not to say that Americans aren’t full of Tom Sawyer, but to remove the ideology from foreign policy adventures is both to excuse an arrogant liberalism and to forget that American idealism itself causes great trouble and requires checking by a harsh prudence.
Cruise and Doug Liman made “Edge of Tomorrow” back in 2014, an unusual action movie that puts how you act above what you think you know. That’s an attempt to bring back heroism, to render moral virtues somewhat autonomous of intellectual virtues, in that case in a form of a sci-fi alien-war story. This time they look to achieve the same thing from a different angle. If a man is determined by what he thinks constitutes success, what’s left of him when it all comes crashing around him?
This brings us to the ending, which I won’t spoil. In ways that do not seem to have anything to do with the true story of Barry Seal, the old American ideas are what the movie-markers want to leave you with. A reflection on sacrifice and protection as virtues of manliness and a quiet appeal to God and family. If you see the movie, you’ll see there is something amazing about how it helps a man grow up to learn he cannot get away with everything forever.
Disconnected Ruminations on America
Patriotism is really the only part of the story that falters and collapses, which brings back the problem I mentioned earlier with discussing foreign policy. The story tries to convey that Americans are conspicuously American beyond America’s borders—self-appointed ambassadors, in the strangest of ways, for better and worse, within or without legal boundaries.
But at the same time, Americans take with them their domestic attitude—they do not feel bound by American foreign policy, nor interested in it. The government does not mediate thinking about America. It’s as though the modern state somehow lacks an ability to speak to the American heart. This is confirmed by the extent to which Americans abandon foreign enterprises undertaken by high officials in the government, whether appointed or elected.
So we can only wish the writers had been wise enough to think about this problem in terms more serious than jokes about institutions run by enthusiastic boys and petty partisan conflicts in Washington. It’s better than what liberals used to do—out-and-out conspiracy theory and hysteria—but it still means Hollywood cannot produce stories that connect important parts of American character to American history.
That’s what’s crazy about the “Forrest Gump” phenomenon: stories that show American character, but refuse to connect it to the events that befall Americans, as though they came from nothing. This pushes innocence even beyond ignorance.