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!

 

THE JTP AND GIVING UP ON THE PLAME GAME (Monthly Book Report: 12/16)

For December, I finished two more books in the Josephine Tey Project (all re-reads) and decided to abandon my effort at continuing Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir. Thoughts on all and sundry below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brat Farrar (Josephine Tey, 1950)

An ingenious idea, put at the service of Tey’s darkened post-War sensibility. A young man is lured into impersonating an heir–the long-thought-dead twin of the present heir. The twist is that the impersonator is riven by an uneasy conscience and the twin whose fortune he has usurped may or may not be a sociopath.

The dichotomy unfolds only gradually. The first strong impression of the usurper is unsettling:

And Brat, walking down the street, was shocked to find himself exhilarated He had expected to be nervous and a little ashamed. And it had not been in the least like that. It had been one of the most exciting things he had ever done. A wonderful tight-rope sort of thing. He had sat there and lied and not even been conscious that he was lying.

Clearly, he’s at risk for sociopathy himself. It’s the “shocked” and “expected” more than the “ashamed” that leave a path for escape without tipping whether he’ll take it.

After that, it’s not merely lives that are stake, but souls.

The book is told almost entirely from the usurper’s perspective and it holds its secrets until the very end.

As happened with her previous book, The Franchise Affair, Tey seemed unable to bring herself to plunge all the way back in to the darkness and pity that made Miss Pym Disposes her finest hour.

The result is something like what Patricia Highsmith might have been if Highsmith had been constrained by civilization. This might be the difference between a very good writer and a great one, but it is hard, from this distance, to fault anyone for an excess of decency–let alone someone who could make the language sing as gently and beautifully as Josephine Tey.

Superb, then…as far as it goes.

To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey, 1951)

By now Tey had settled into her great post-war theme: Yet again, a stranger is inserted into a bucolic setting and becomes a disturbance in the force. Tey’s great trick–and, in her hands, it’s more than that–was to keep the reader guessing about who the real force-disturber is. Often as not, the stranger is a catalyst only in so far as his/her presence reveals what was hiding in sight all along. Even if one considers that no more than a trick, it was no easy one, especially since, in this instance, she folds it back into a procedural.

This was the first true Alan Grant novel since 1936 (he had made a cameo in The Franchise Affair). As ever, the intervening war left a mark, but this is clearly an attempt to get back to old fashioned crime solving.

And in Tey’s procedural world, before or after the war, the mark of civilization is that crimes are solved by the persistence of decent men of reasonably high intelligence–men like Alan Grant–rather than by the individual genius of a Holmes or a Poirot. She understood that when there are too few of the former, the latter will be left hanging just like the rest of us.

Again, what is missing is the sense of dread. Somehow you know things will work out right and they do. So, in lieu of any great suspense, we’re left with Tey’s keen eye for post-war social carnage. For instance:

“Yes, according to Silas country existence is one cesspool of rape, murder, incest, abortion, and suicide, and perhaps Silas thinks that it is time that Salcott St. Mary lived up to his idea of it.”

One suspect casting aspersions on another, of course, but is anyone surprised to find that Silas is a novelist of the modernist-realism school? Or that either suspect is capable of anything?

There’s just enough of that to keep this going, though the trend was clearly towards safety and away from the spark of genius that had briefly flowered in the shadow of the war’s own grim reality.

Fair Game (Valerie Plame Wilson)

Speaking of shadows and grim reality…

I picked this up a few years back after I saw the 2010 movie based on it. I had hoped to learn a little more about Ms. Plame and dig deeper into the film’s reasonably convincing portrayal of the police state now lurking within.

After several tries at engaging it, I’m giving up on page 58. Stick with the movie. It’s not so much that Plame Wilson writes like a CIA analyst–that I was prepared to accept. But just enough of the book is redacted to make it both a literary slog and a dysfunctional narrative of either the author’s personal life, or her not insignificant role in a series of world-altering events.

(NOTE: Spoilers ahead for Fair Game and The Interpreter…don’t read any further if you’re planning to see either movie.)

The movie has its problems, mostly a cop-out “up the people” ending, which is probably an accurate reflection of how Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, really see the world (who is ever more naive than low level intelligence agents with a streak of personal decency?), but is also a denial of every dark, rat-infested corner the rest of the film was meant to fumigate.

Still, it’s worth seeing for its nicely understated performances by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. I recommend it especially in tandem with 2005’s The Interpreter, a similar you-should-probably-see-it-once flick Penn did with Nicole Kidman.

The cop-out in that one was that, having gone to some lengths to make every other outcome less than feasible, Hollywood couldn’t bring itself to have Kidman shoot a black guy in the head, even if that black guy was a film version of Robert Mugabe.

I wonder if “Hollywood” will be so sanguine a generation from now?

By then, the Neo-Nazis now rising in Europe will have produced their own inevitable Mugabes. They’ll have been aided in part by the presence of so many monsters in Africa, who have created a flood of refugees no mere continent can absorb in the old way of liberal democracies run–and serviced–by the personally decent, even if men were angels.

Did I mention I’m looking forward to a Happy New Year?