HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN (Volume Thirteen: “All Day Music”)

“All Day Music”
1971
Artist: War
Writers: Jerry Goldstein, War

“Hey, this is the War symbol…Three fingers and a smile. War!”

(Last words heard on War’s breakout album All Day Music, which closes on an early, raw, live version of “Me and Baby Brother”)

Claiming the Space…

Bourgeois dreams were coming to fruition in Black America in the early 70s. The cold-blooded economic planning that would keep the ghetto the ghetto wherever it was found (mostly in black-demo big cities, the dual-demo rural south, white demo Appalachia and the about-to-be Rust Belt) was already clicking into place, but there were still cracks in the new facade where the light could be glimpsed shining through from the Promised Land.

War, the greatest American band of the decade (and, with the original Byrds, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, the most Cosmic of the American Century–“greatest” is another argument), lived and breathed in those cracks…and stomped all over that facade.

Their ability to stomp has, not surprisingly in a Narrative defined almost entirely by college-bound white boys who can’t dance, overshadowed their gift for living and breathing, of which “All Day Music” was the first, foundational, example.

It was their first crossover hit (if you don’t count their Burn-Down-the-Cornfield backing of Eric Burdon on “Spill the Wine”). It wasn’t huge, but it made Top 40, and kicked off a string of harder-edged singles that were, perhaps paradoxically, much bigger. “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” “The World is a Ghetto,” “Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Me and Baby Brother,” “Low Rider” Really, the titles are all you need.

Contrasted to all that–and I think the contrast wasn’t just deliberate, but a setup–“All Day Music” represents what sounds at first like a comforting, almost bucolic vision, albeit with a hint of carrying on a tradition of Black America finding peace in unlikely places that made it a natural sequel to the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.”

But where “Under the Boardwalk” (recorded under extraordinary circumstances when lead singer Rudy Lewis was killed in a car accident the day before the planned session and Johnny Moore had to step into his place to provide that durable R&B group/brand with its last Top Ten pop hit), was written as a white fantasy for a black group to sing, “All Day Music” was written by black men to sing for themselves.

Great as “Under the Boardwalk” is–I wouldn’t argue if you said it was a greater record than “All Day Music”–that’s not a distinction without a difference.

Neither was the space War intended to claim: Not a temporary space under the boardwalk at Coney Island, as accessible to Black America as any other integrated space, but the broad scope of urban and suburban life in early 70s’ Los Angeles.

Down at the beach, or a party in town meant something different in L.A., with its long and notorious history of virulent racist policing–a theme War would return to over and again–than it did back east (where racist policing was hardly unknown), or even in the Deep South (where, except for a few spots in Florida, beaches tend to be either resort spots or hideaways, not part of the everyday social fabric that comes with the term Southern California).

And once you know that, Making love or just riding around or Let’s have a picnic, go to the park/Rolling in the grass til long after dark, take on a whole new dimension–a dimension Black America had never really felt free to grant itself before and can hardly take for granted even now.

Taken that way–as career starter, tone setter, vision definer–“All Day Music” may have been even bolder than War’s more obviously bold records, which were only the boldest of their era.

Strange, then, that “All Day Music” and “Summer” (from 1976), the records which bracketed the band’s hit-making run on the Pop Charts, its true bond with White America–a run that cemented their now-forgotten status as the band who were both asking the questions that needed answering and providing a glimpse of what lay on the other side of implementing the human-size solutions which then seemed so near to hand–defined the promise of the coming day that seemed so far away in “Slippin’ Into Darkness” or “In the Ghetto” or “Me and Baby Brother.”

That the day never quite came, that progress stalled and then, as progress will, splintered, deepens the melancholy tone these records–and, as a career starter, a statement of purpose, “All Day Music” in particular–only hinted at when they were on the radio.

The peace “All Day Music” meant to promote without taking anything for granted, shattered in the crack-filled, CIA-run, eighties  that War had promised lay on the other side of failing to reach an understanding, and which, almost inevitably, produced first NWA, then Ice Cube, then Ice Cube’s natural sequel to “All Day Music”…

…by which time, the dream of permanence War had been close enough to reach out and touch had been reduced to Thinkin’ will I live another twenty-four  and Today I didn’t even have to use my AK, bleeding in and out of an air of paranoia that couldn’t be escaped for even a moment. Running in fear all day, and being thankful the worst fear hadn’t been realized for a whole day, had replaced listening to music all day.

And replaces it still.

Better then. Better even with all hell breaking loose…

 

DEEPEST, DARKEST NIGHT…(Noir, Noir, Noir: Third Feature)

The Big Heat (1953)
D. Fritz Lang

(Warning: Potential spoilers)

Well, it’s the first Classic Era movie I’ve reviewed in this category. Might as well start at the top.

The Big Heat is Fritz Lang’s best American movie (for my money, his best movie period). It’s top drawer in Glenn Ford’s catalog, Lee Marvin’s catalog and those of a host of fine character actors (Jeannette Nolan, playing against type as a cold-blooded blackmailer, is a particular standout).

But Gloria Grahame, Nolan’s “sister under the mink,” owns it….and them. She smolders through noir‘s darkest night, a night only Lang could provide, invests it with her peculiar brand of laconic feline energy, and the hotter and brighter she burns–scarred face or no–the deeper the shadows around her fall.

These were Grahame’s salad days: Give her more than three lines and she would own any movie she was in, including In a Lonely Place, which is one of the ten greatest American movies. The Big Heat doesn’t fall much below that level and it might very well be the greatest Gloria Grahame movie, which is a whole other arrangement.

It’s easy to forget when you’re just thinking about her–and how she usually ends up–that she could bring a girlish quality, too, the same quality a kitten brings to a lion’s den. Glamourous kitten, but kitten just the same:

Even at first glance (and that screenshot is literally our first glance), there’s something more, something different. But you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a passing thing, that she’ll still end up being just another starlet playing a victim in a steamy thriller. You could be forgiven even more when she speaks and it’s a girl’s voice. A big girl, but still….a girl.

That’s just Nature calling. Human nature, sure–that old thing–but something more primal too. There’s a sense that she’s so attuned to the rhythms of the Jungle it can never consume her the way you already know it will consume everybody else. For starters, she’s picked the only natural path for a kitten among the lions….or the wolves. To keep just anybody–or everybody–from jumping her bones, with or without permission, she’s given her permission to the biggest, meanest wolf she can find, Lee Marvin’s Vince Stone.

Marvin was known for playing thuggish characters early on and this was his definitive turn in the days before anybody knew he could act and he was all presence. Vince Stone’s a pure animal. You’re a little surprised to discover he can manage modern technology, like telephones.

You’re even more surprised he can form sentences when he speaks into them.

That’s the kind of playmate Grahame’s Debby Marsh has picked for herself. The biggest wolf in the pack….

…That’s true, even if Stone’s boss, MIke Lagano, (a quietly menacing Alexander Scourby), is the one with the polish to be CEO in the flat, urban setting that’s required to blur text and subtext, the better for modern minds to comprehend them.

The main story line involves Ford’s lock-jawed straight-cop-in-a-crooked-city going after Lagano and Stone (and the tentacles of their gang, which reach all the way to the Police Commissioner’s office) because they killed his wife. The moral danger Ford places himself in by turning vigilante might have made a good, albeit more conventional, movie in itself. Such is the quality of The Big Heat‘s script, its deft narrative and Lang’s mastery in fusing mood and method.

But Grahame easily subverts all that, and turns the film into something larger, something which yields, in turn, the hard, lethal kiss of tragedy so much of noir was content to flirt with. Debby Marsh could easily have been the conventional bad girl looking for an excuse to turn good. The Big Heat has its boundaries expanded, and inherent genre limitation turned on its head, by Grahame’s ability to suggest the two sides are not simply interchangeable, but in real, possibly irresolvable,  conflict. You believe her when she wonders if Ford’s Dave Bannion is the man she’s been looking for, the one man who can take her away from the wolf….or take the wolf down. The hero of any number of other noirs

But you believe her, too, when she says “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better!” You get a sense of how much it would take to make her really give up the danger if she has to give up the life she’s bought into along with it.

It would take a lot.

A lot happens.

 

And it’s Grahame who covers the transitions. Ford’s Bannion goes from decent stick to cold-blooded avenger and back again and he handles all the usual angles as well as you would expect. But Grahame’s Marsh takes a longer way around and ends up surrounding a story that was probably meant to surround her. Just for starters, this film has two of the most shocking sequences in American cinema. She and Vince Stone are the key players in both (the only players in the second). They would be. And they switch places. In the first Grahame is a not-quite-innocent victim, in the second an avenger who makes Bannion look like a conscience-stricken priest.

But it’s the same girl. And she’s been a few other girls in between–all human, all convincing. That’s the kind of walking over, under and around a plot that precious few actors can do (Ford did the same thing in 3:10 to Yuma, and one wonders if he learned a thing or two watching Grahame in this earlier film). There’s finally no pity, “self” or otherwise, in Grahame’s performance and no way out for her character.

You can understand why audiences, then and now, couldn’t quite make up their minds about her, whether she should be admired, pitied or feared.

Or was it her characters?

Or even just the pieces of those characters she was bound to invent or discover once somebody gave her a blueprint called a script and the script was even halfway good?

Who knows. You can have a lot of fun trying to figure it all out, none more than here, where she, more than anyone on film–the actress who had already been married and divorced from Nicholas Ray and had already slept with his thirteen-year-old son on the way to marrying him a decade later–never lets you forget that the dreams, American or otherwise..

are always kept next to the Nightmares…

…American or otherwise.

SPEAK, ROCK AND ROLL MEMORY (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #124)

Thanks to commenter Chris, who put me on to this lovely little documentary about the life and death of Eddie Cochran, featuring extensive interviews with Cochran’s mother and more footage of his girlfriend, the great Sharon Sheeley, than I’ve seen anywhere else, ever (including what seems to be the only public airing of the song Sheeley wrote in his memory–an excellent song from what one can hear–a Sharon Sheeley song in other words). Also some great period footage of Eddie performing on TV and in the movies. It’s an easy watch. Take the time if you can:

 

NOT HAVING A TV….GOOD THING? BAD THING? (CD Review)

The Vietnam War–A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: The Soundtrack (2017)

I haven’t seen Ken Burns’ latest on The Vietnam War (which I notice sustains the implicit arrogance of so many of his other titles–The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, etc.–the persistent implication that he has rendered the last word on each subject in turn, and one need look no further).

But the two-disc soundtrack (thirty-seven tracks in all) looked promising, maybe because I didn’t read too carefully past the head-spinning, conceptually heart-stopping triple-header near the top of the first disc: “It’s My Life,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Now that I’ve had the soundtrack experience, I can make the following observations.

First: It’s never a good sign when “flimmakers” insist on putting their names in the title of their film. It’s really not a good sign when they insist on putting their names on the title of the soundtrack.

Second: The cover’s as pedestrian, and perversely revealing, as the title. Wonder how the big shots at PBS would have reacted if Burns and company had insisted on an image that reversed the positions of the American fighting man and the Vietnamese peasant above? Wonder how they would have reacted if they had reversed the positions and then replaced the image of the Vietnamese peasant with an image of a North Vietnamese fighting man? Wouldn’t that have been a least a little unsettling?

Third: And shouldn’t we want a thirty-seven track soundtrack of The Vietnam War to be at least a little unsettling?

I’m not saying nothing good happens. That triple-header is all it promised to be, even coming out of a pedestrian country number (Johnny Wright’s Country #1, “Hello, Vietnam,” which, along with Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” is supposed the represent the Pro-War, or at least Pro-American Fighting Man position, which, if you’re gonna go there, why not pick a blood-and-guts number like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is also a better record). Ray Charles’ take on “America the Beautiful” is a great setup for “What’s Going On.” And having Janis Joplin bleed out of Bob Dylan’s folk-phase version of his own “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” provides one of those recontextualizing jolts that make such comps worth our attention in the first place.

But, my God, what a missed opportunity.

Not having seen it, I can’t speak for the way the music is used in the series (the more accurate description for the “film” in question), but there were a few good ways to go with the soundtrack and whoever did the choosing, chose “none of the above.”

One good way, would have been just a straight run of the “iconic music of the Vietnam era” promised by the cover.

That would have meant including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and both the Dylan and Hendrix versions of “All Along the Watchtower.” That would have meant more than one Creedence number (and if there was only one, it should have been “Fortunate Son” or “Run Through the Jungle” not “Bad Moon Rising,” great and appropo as it is). That would have meant the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” over the Temptations’ relatively pedestrian “Psychedelic Shack,” and their “We Can Be Together” over the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as an album closer, with the Fabs represented instead by “Hey Jude,” or “Revolution” or something from The White Album. That would have meant the Band’s “The Weight.” That would have meant including Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Chambers’ Brothers “Time Has Come Today” and the Supremes’ “Reflections.”  That would have meant a track or two from the Doors and adding the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” to their “Gimme Shelter.” That would have meant the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” That would have meant Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “500 Miles” as a side-opener (instead of Dylan’s blustering and not nearly as convincing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Well, none of that happened.

Which would be fine if, instead, those choosing had come up with inspired numbers from the Secret Sixties and used this high-profile opportunity to introduce new audiences to not-so-well-known numbers which caught–and still catch–the tenor of the times as well as anything even if they were never big hits. Think the Mamas and the Papas of “Straight Shooter” (or, as I never fail to mention “Safe in my Garden”). Think the Peter, Paul and Mary of “Too Much of Nothing.” (Dylan, incidentally, is the only artist who gets three cuts here. There should be less of Dylan the singer and more of Dylan the writer. Standing this close to Janis Joplin or Eric Burdon, forget the Howlin’ Wolf or Wilson Pickett or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” he does not come off well absent his rock and roll voice.)

Anyway back to thinking: Think the Supremes of “Forever Came Today.” Think the Shangri-Las of “Never Again” or “I’ll Never Learn.” Think the Fairport Convention of “Nottamun Town” or “Meet on the Ledge” or even “I’ll Keep it With Mine” instead of “The Lord is in This Place” (fine and haunting, but too much of a mood piece to stand between “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “For What It’s Worth” without being diminished and diminishing them in turn, something a well made comp should never do).

And still thinking: Think the Byrds of “Goin’ Back” or “Draft Morning,” or even “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” Think the Waylon Jennings of “Six White Horses.” Think the Nancy Sinatra of “Home.”

Think all the beach soul numbers that carried a hint of warning behind even the most positive dance-happy messages (Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on “May I” or the Tams on “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy”–think what that must have felt like if you heard it in Saigon while you were waiting for the next chopper out.

One could go on. One could on so far as to have used these numbers to fill an entire soundtrack by themselves.

Or one could have gone yet another, third, direction and used them as stitching between the more obvious anthems and constructed a soundtrack that wouldn’t quit and wouldn’t die.

Of course, for that, you would have needed less taste and more guts.

Nothing Ken Burns or PBS would ever be accused of, I’m sure.

Absent all that, unless you really need Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in a context where you don’t have to listen to him sing for a whole album without the Weavers, I say give this one a pass.

Me, I always liked Dave Marsh’s idea that if “Leader of the Pack” had come out a year later, it would have been heard as a much better metaphor for the unfolding quagmire from which we have never emerged.

And, for the record, I wouldn’t really have closed with “We Can Be Together.” I’d of let that be penultimate (replacing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and closed with this, from the truly “closing” year of 1972.

Take it Mavis:

 

 

AND YET ANOTHER VICTIM….THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

It almost doesn’t do to point these things out. I’m good with (or is that guilty of?) slang and euphemisms myself, especially in every day conversation.

So I’m not exactly a paid up member of the Language Police.

But it starts to grate a little when language is being specifically abused in epidemic proportions by people who really should know better.

I realize “really should know better” is itself a slippery concept in a society so fiercely anti-intellectual that we haven’t produced an actual intellectual in decades. I couldn’t even name the last one worthy of the name. These days we settle for Noam Chomsky and George Will.

Still, in regards to one particular word, the tidal wave of self-righteousness that has attended the almost daily revelations of some new figure from Hollywood, the publishing industry, Broadway or the world of politics being accused of inappropriate behavior towards adolescent boys and girls has swept the beach of all reason and left a state of pure delusion in its place.

News flash: Having sex (or attempted sex, or behaving in a sexual manner without actually having or even attempting sex) with a fourteen-year-old is not pedophilia.

There is a word for that behavior and that word is pederasty (see clarifciation below).

And there’s a  reason why I–and probably you, and probably no one–haven’t seen that word appear a single time in the feverish condemnations of Roman Polanski, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, et al. who are specifically accused (in Polanski’s case convicted, though “accused” is often attached even in news reports) of sexual misconduct toward young teenagers ranging from inappropriate touching to exposure to rape.

The reason is simple.

Pederasty is no longer a dirty word.

We’ve been sexualizing adolescents for so long–roughly, and not coincidentally, the amount of time we’ve been infantilizing adults–that we’ve obliterated the distinction. And now, at last, when we feel a need to condemn atrocious behavior, we have no word for what has actually happened.

So we reach for another word, one that still has a bit–though only a bit–of sting in it.

To all those who participated in the long fall–and who by their newly feigned ignorance of their own language are participating still–I ask the same question I asked of those who lined up on one side or other of a meaningless political divide in the three-and-a-half decades of unrelenting cultural and political pollution that finally produced Donald Trump as either culmination or antidote, take your pick.

What did you think would happen?

Take it Gene…

UPDATE: Commenter Neal correctly pointed out that Pederasty only applies to man/boy relations. For the cases where underage girls were molested (Polanski and Moore in my examples, though the Moore case is thus far only an allegation), substitute real or attempted Statutory Rape or simple misconduct, which also do not carry the weight of “Pedophile”…witness the standing ovation given Polanski when he won an Oscar in absentia.

My apologies for getting off course. My original idea was to post on Spacey specifically and Pederast got stuck in my mind. Like I said, I’m not a good member of the Language Police, but I should have been more careful, especially in a post where I was criticizing others for misusing the language, so thanks to Neal for riding herd.

I should have stuck with Spacey, but I believe my main points still stand.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Elton John Up)

“Lady Samantha”
Elton John (1969)
Did Not Make the Charts
Recommended source: To Be Continued (Box Set)

and

“Part Time Love”
Elton John (1978)
US #21
UK #15
Recommended source: A Single Man

I started listening to the radio seriously in late 1975. I was aware of Elton John before that. It was hard not to be at least aware (though if anyone could have managed it, it would have been me).

I didn’t have much of an opinion about him, even after I started listening to the radio. 1976 was sort of the break point. I loved “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (still do), liked the others he had out at the time (still do, especially “I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”). But, as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was a duet, the first record of his alone that I took entirely to heart was an obscure side I discovered when I plucked The History of British Rock Vol. 2 from some bargain bin or other, along about 1977. I was still in my discovery days. There were a dozen or more classics I encountered for the first time on this particular set (and, yes, I still have it), everything from “Brown Eyed Girl” to “The Mighty Quinn” to “Something in the Air.”

“Lady Samantha” didn’t take a back seat to any of them.

Knowing, by the chart book I was then busy memorizing (it came natural as I’d been a baseball stat freak), that, unlike those other records, it had never been a hit in either the U.S. or the U.K., I had one of my first inklings that my own taste might not line up with everyone’s, even when it came to the 60s, so it was a more than usually valuable marker.

As the seventies progressed, my stubborn streak would become more and more necessary.

“Part Time Love” was the next Elton record that I really loved and it came and went like a cool breeze. It followed a string of flops (by his standards) and didn’t do much to get him started again. By the time he did get started again (some time after the Thom Bell collaboration “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” had provided a nice respite for audience and artist alike in 1979) he was a changed man and a changed artist. He would remain a consistent hit-maker for another two decades. He would never matter again.

“Part Time Love” came and went so fast I didn’t have chance to score it on a 45 and years of hunting the used oldies bins proved fruitless. Once it left the radio, I never heard it any place except my head until a full decade later, when I picked up the album A Simple Man for .99 cents (less than I would have paid for the single in ’78) at my then favorite, now deceased, local record store.

All those years, my head was enough. A decade further on, when I was putting my first mix-tape of beat records together (there were dozens eventually and, still another decade on, I transferred most of them to CD), and I was looking for something to segue out of “London’s Burning,” I knew there was only one record that would do the trick. I still listen to the mix-disc regularly and every time I hear Paul Buckmaster’s soaring arrangement bleed out of London punk–and subsume and subvert it, all of it–I can’t keep from smiling.

I’ve learned to love a lot of Elton John’s music in the years since 1978, even some that he made after he stopped mattering as anything more than a celebrity hit-maker. But I never forget that I came to the biggest solo artist of my youth through the great records he made just before and just after he was King of the World.

That, too, makes me smile.

 

HEAVEN SENT A STRING MAN (Paul Buckmaster, R.I.P.)

The personnel for Elton John’s breakthrough album. Paul Buckmaster second from the left.

Strange and disorienting serendipity because this Child of the Seventies is just now–literally this week–catching up to Elton John’s first five albums, where Paul Buckmaster was an insistent and insidious presence.

Buckmaster–classically trained instrumentalist, composer, conductor and ace arranger–was the definer of Orchestral Rock for Modern Ears. In other hands, that would almost certainly would have been a dubious distinction. On some of those Elton John records it was a dubious distinction.

But his fingers were on (usually all over) a number of wonderful era-defining records in the early seventies: “Space Oddity,” “You’re So Vain,” “Without You,” Terrapin Station, numerous projects that involved him working with everyone from John (for whom he arranged the breakthrough hit “Your Song,” and “Tiny Dancer,” the closest Sir Elton ever came to a statement of balladeering purpose and one that has grown with the years) to Leonard Cohen to Blood, Sweat and Tears to Miles Davis.

It may not be a coincidence that Carly Simon, Harry Nillson, Elton John and Mick Jagger all waxed tracks that were contenders for their finest vocals when Buckmaster was handing them arrangements that begged for something more than they themselves may have thought they could deliver.

Which brings us to this, the greatest album closer in the history of Rock and Roll if only because it closed so much more than an album…and ushered in a New Age where all concerned would be subsumed….Including, just today, Paul Buckmaster.

Him and God should be having a very interesting talk about now. I’m rooting for a better understanding.

R.I.P.

PATIENCE, PATIENCE (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #123)

There’s been a first-verse-and-chorus-only version of Patty Loveless singing “Here I Am” (one of the contenders for her greatest recording) live on YouTube for years. Finally, there’s a full version (from Austin City Limits, no less, a place she always seemed especially relaxed). Double bonus since it’s preceded by “Tear Stained Letter” and catches her in her Best-Dressed-Woman-In-Nashville phase. These things can disappear, so catch it while you can!

FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any good CIA movie should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!