Posted Wednesday night, February 21, 2019.
The real Barry Seal seems to have been a brilliant pilot and a born criminal. The Barry Seal Tom Cruise plays in “American Made” is an even more brilliant pilot but an accidental criminal---accidental in that becoming a criminal wasn’t his idea or his intention or even something he noticed happening. At least, it happens without his giving it much thought.
Cruise’s Seal doesn’t have time for self-reflection. At first he’s too busy having fun. Then he’s too busy making money and managing his newly acquired wealth. Finally, he’s too busy just trying to stay alive. He knows that what he’s doing to have fun and make money---drug smuggling, gun-running, money laundering, acting as a spy for hire in an illegal espionage operation ---is against the law, and at a just below conscious level he’s aware that it’s morally wrong. But his conscience doesn’t bother him enough to make him put on the brakes. When things begin to spin out of control he wants it all over, if only for the relief and for some rest---it requires all his energy and all his wits, with which he is not over-blessed, to stay alive---but he doesn’t know how to put a stop to it himself. It’s never clear he really wants to. He’s like an addict who tells himself he wants to quit but physically and psychologically can’t.
Actually, not like an addict. He is an addict.
He’s addicted to the thrill of it all.
When the CIA agent who recruits him does it by essentially offering a bribe, a twin-engine turbo prop plane that’s the top of the line in maneuverability and speed, it’s not the plane itself that tempts him, it’s how fast and recklessly he’ll be able to fly.
Seal likes the money, he likes having his wife’s newfound and increasingly ardent affection, he likes the feeling of being a successful businessman---his “legitimate” business are fronts for laundering money but they’re real to the people who work for him and to the folks in town who shop at them and, of course, he really does run an private airline, it’s just his usual cargo is guns and drugs and his regular passengers are Right Wing counter-revolutionaries the CIA is training to fight in Ronald Reagan’s proxy war in Central America. He likes feeling like a hero in that war and he likes feeling like a hero at home for all the good he’s doing for the town as he launders his money through it. He likes the sense of freedom he has from being able to tell himself he’s his own boss, he likes that he can come and go as he pleases. And he likes knowing that if he does mess up and get into trouble, the CIA will come to his rescue, which means he’s free to mess up and get into trouble. (Turns out, he’s mistaken about that.) But what he truly likes and what keeps him going past the point where it’s either smart or rewarding is the thrill.
One way or another his thrill-seeking was going to get him into trouble. The CIA doesn’t corrupt him. It just gives him the immediate freedom to act on his self-destructive instincts. After that, he pretty much corrupts himself.
Something almost the opposite happens to his wife Lucy (played by Sarah Wright). She’s given the freedom to be what feels like to her her best self.
She’s already a good wife and mother. Loving, conscientious, self-sacrificing, devoted. But she’s fretful and hassled and stressed and distracted, and it’s clear that her husband is the cause of the fretting, the hassle, the stress, and distraction. One way or another, he makes messes she has to clean up. The money Seal starts bringing in by the suitcase allows her to stop worrying so much and enjoy being a good wife and mother.
She’s also given the freedom to expand her role in life beyond that of wife and mother. She becomes a community leader and benefactor inadvertently helping to make the whole town complicit in Seal’s drug dealing.
We see that Seal is on his way to making the biggest mess he’s ever made. She doesn’t. What she sees is a newly happy man with more purpose and direction who has stopped drifting into and out of trouble and is excitedly and energetically rushing...into serious trouble. But Lucy doesn’t let herself look that far ahead. All she sees is that she’s married to an exciting and energetic man she finds terrifically attractive. What she sees is the man she fell in love with and that thrills her. And Lucy, we find out, has her own thrill-seeking side.
She’s also a little greedy.
Not for the money. Not the things the money buys---jewelry, fancy cars, a swimming pool, a new kitchen, additions to the house, exotic vacations---but to the pleasure those things bring.
But those are pleasures are familiar. Costume jewelry, a reliable car that didn’t have to be new just one that she could count on to get her the grocery store and back, a new but not top of the line refrigerator with an ice maker, a new coat of paint for the kids’ bedroom, a day at the lake would have given her similar pleasure. More money simply means she can feel that pleasure more often and more sustainedly. What she doesn’t feel is different. She still feels like herself only happier and it isn’t long before she’s be taking that increased happiness for granted.
Not just for granted.
As her due.
American Made is a cautionary tale. It doesn’t warn us that if we’re not careful we’ll end up criminals smuggling drugs and running guns and running for our lives from the Medellín drug cartel.
Few of us lead lives of rigorous self-examination. We can be puritanical, but we’re not Puritans. We take it for granted we’re good people and assume that as good people when faced with a moral dilemma we’ll do the right thing. What we are, mostly, are well-intentioned people who don’t stray from the straight and narrow because we don’t need to. Routine and habit and the pressure to conform and not attract the disapproving gaze of our neighbors keep us “honest.” Moral inertia takes the place of actual moral vigilance and discipline---until we meet with the right temptation.
Nine times out of ten the temptation is to a venial sin and we don’t even recognize it as a temptation. We just do something because we want to or think we need to, without asking ourselves if it’s right or wrong, and there’s no consequence. No one is hurt, that we can see. No harm is done, that we can tell. So we move on and forget about it, and our high opinion of ourselves suffers no lasting damage. But it’s just that past experience that gets us into trouble. It doesn’t occur to us that this temptation is different. We don’t anticipate the consequences of this sin because usually there haven’t been any for similar sins in the past.
And sometimes when there are consequences, those consequences are good. They’re rewards or seem to be. We’re rewarded for our selfish, self-indulgent, expedient, unethical, immoral, bad behavior. But since we’re good people, we tend not to see that behavior as selfish, expedient, unethical, immoral, or bad. We see them as good because they were done by a good person. Consequently, there’s no reason to stop doing them. There’s no reason to forgo the rewards that come our way. There’s no reason to feel guilty. There is, instead, reason to resent people who try to make us feel guilty, who tell us we shouldn’t accept those rewards, who try to make us stop.
This is how people who aren’t sociopaths, who were formerly people of conscience or at least well-meaning and motivated by good intentions, become sociopathic.
Other people start to seem like obstacles intentionally placing themselves in the way of their success, satisfaction, happiness, and reward. Other people aren’t just enemies. They’re things to be removed or pushed out of the way.
Once we get started on this path, there turn out to be no boundaries to stop us because we never set any. We don’t expect to be going very far in the direction where those boundaries will be needed to save us. Once we find ourselves way across the line with no idea how to get back, the best---and easiest---course seems to keep going the way we’ve been going and hope it will work out. Sometimes it does work out. More often it doesn’t. When we see it isn’t, we improvise or panic. We speed up. We slow down. We make abrupt changes in direction that us them we don’t know or care where just as long as it’s outta here. In other words, we have a habit of navigating morally the way Seal flies. Every which way. Seal does that. Morally he flies every which way. And for a while it gives him a similar thrill as the one he gets from flying recklessly.
Seal is a criminal. Lucy is too. Everybody in the movie is a criminal, either accidentally or intentionally but for the most part unawaredly. Everybody’s complicit. That includes Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as well as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. But there are no outright villains in “American Made”. Not even Pablo Escobar. He’s just a bad guy. A really bad guy.
Villainy requires self-awareness and a conscious intention to do a thing you know is wrong.
There’s only one character in “American Made” who knows exactly what he’s doing which is whatever it takes to advance his own career.
That’s Shafer, the CIA who recruits and then runs Barry---runs him into trouble Shafer is then content to leave him in. He’s a monster of ambition. And he’s the subject of another post.
This is the second in what I expect will be a three post series. The first post is here: If a Republican does it, it’s not wrong.
“American Made”, directed by Doug Liman, written by Gary Spinelli. Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Alejandro Edda, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jayma Mays is available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.