Reteaming with the director of the only non-Mission Impossible film of the past decade to brandish Tom Cruise’s famously lop-sided, megawatt smile as anything more than a known-quantity was surely a smart decision for the sometimes-struggling, sometimes-alight box office Cruise. He used to be the biggest actor in America; now it’s difficult to tell, unless another of Cruise’s most-vaunted Impossible films traipses into theaters to electro-shock his reputation once again. But director Doug Liman, if not exactly a great filmmaker, is certainly a great director of Tom Cruise. As his criminally underrated 2014 sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow is testament to, Liman – and Cruise for that matter – take great joy in mangling Cruise’s pretty boy looks with near-psychotic charisma. The blunt-force efficiency of skittering, shiv-like editing in that film routinely hits with a felt force that suggests Cruise – the best runner in modern cinema – sprinting right up into the film’s resistance to him, its willingness to play with his seemingly implacable, irrepressible superstar confidence by beating him up and tearing him to pieces.
Reteaming for the ripped-from-the-headlines American Made, Liman and Cruise again delight in jostling Cruise’s passion and snidely charisma. This time, they expose the flustered anxiety beneath his All-American persona and twisting his famous smile into a rictus grin that seems locked in place for fear of considering the frown that hides beneath it. Playing TWA-pilot Barry Seal, he soon plunges with giddy abandon into the extremely scruffy, loosely-worn suit of a true story. He crash lands in Colombia in the late ‘70s and finds himself running drugs for an itinerant, on-the-rise group of smugglers headed by none other than Pablo Escobar, a man whose breathless ambition teases, tests, and taunts Seal’s own vision of bootstrap individualism. Soon enough, Barry finds himself on the dark side of Twentieth Century America’s new Manifest Destiny. By which, I mean America’s desire to control the international sphere that first bloomed when it found that it had no more frontier to occupy and oppress within the notional boundaries of its nationhood. Seal has to confront a central truth of the US in the late-20th century: its pernicious ability to treat national boundaries as essential and inarguable when nationalism is useful and irrelevant and plastic when internationalism is more applicable to their interests.
Which means that Seal, caught up in his actions almost immediately, is forced to work for the US government – humanized nebbishly in the body of Domhnall Gleeson as a mysterious man named Schafer – providing intel on Communist guerrillas and running guns to the Contras, the right-wing Nicaraguan insurgents aligned against the left-wing leadership of the country. Co-written with Gary Spinelli, Liman’s film plays like a rash farce, with Seal’s tasks increasingly mounting past the point of absurdity until he is carrying Contras back to the States and guns, meant for the Contras, to the cartel. Things unfurl with the slippery tomfoolery of an antic screwball: in heedless, foolhardy renegotiations, in reckless, inebriated – or coke-addled, more accurately – indecision, in staggered rhythms from head-strong plunge to dead-stop concussion. It paints a portrait of Contras as carnival, drug war as demented cornucopia of style and slippery chauvinism.
But, of course, the film’s giddy rapidity mutates into harried panic as the characters and the filmmaker hop-skip around a narrative rather than adhering to it, treating story as a way to pump up their creative juices rather than hemming them in. Barry’s frolic in other territories increasingly takes on an allegorical air, as a mimetic for US egos playing around in foreign conflicts like tossing around toys in a sandbox. Sometimes, the film airs on the wrong side of gross negligence, reducing complicated geopolitical machinations into a serious attempt to induce whiplash. But, generally, the tone evokes a mood of spirited entropy, of US interests breaking down into smaller splinters even as the US willfully looks the other way. The ornery, scrappy disinterest of the film effectively mimics America’s disinclination to plumb the depths of the conflicts they surface-scratch like planes skirting on the water.
To this mood, Cruise is not merely instrumental but essential, weaponizing his relationship to America – or as an embodiment of America, one might say – to pervert and perturb the assumption that this sort of personal play is free of consequence and should be interpreted merely as an individualized story of loss, gain, achievement, or failure. Holding to his hardly-changing features, he recreates a milieu of middle-aged American man pretending to be an adolescent hot-shot. As a character, he exhibits a too-anxious-to-think-about-his-own-anxiety unthinkingness, playing a renegade in the classical American spirit while also playing a punching bag for an America that is only interested in renegade individualism it can mobilize for its own purposes and at the expense of other nations in the world.
Although too superficial to linger, American Made’s very superficiality also gamely reprimands the administrative quality of so many “based on a true story” motion pictures. Liman’s copious freeze-frames and jackrabbit jump-cuts not only emulate his protagonist’s rattled brains but the US’s frazzled nerves and the incomprehensibility of some of its moral justifications. The reliance on the faded-glory of old film stock (or digital aping of said stock) recalls the scorching, don’t-touch-it’s-too-hot chaos of Oliver Stone’s Salvador. This is a bucking bronco of a film, a reminder that the US – and the bold and brazenly stupid entrepreneurs who manifest the nation’s gung-ho spirit at its least mediated – is doomed to be defeated by the very well it draws animus from: an undying belief in the next frontier, at any cost.
If me writing anything about the interminably just-competent, barrenly-anonymous The Wall is useful to anyone, let it be this: it is highly reminiscent of (although less radical and thus more denatured than) John Ford’s astonishingly out-of-character and brutally existential The Lost Patrol from 1936, a portrait of war as perpetual detour and eventual consumption in a murderously unspecified limbo pitilessly devoid of recognizable or earthly verisimilitude. See that movie. I guess you could see The Wall too, but only if you are for some reason left wanting for another heaping slab of basically-passable filmmaking in the era of increasingly homogenized, not-too-bad-not-too-good cinema where every film is, you know, “ok”.
As for me? Well, The Wall is fine, I guess, but I’ve seen quite a lot of just-fine movies in my day, and The Wall is about as just-fine as it gets. It’s rudimentary in every way, aiming for the more-obvious “you are there” ruthless immediacy war-type film rather than the more provoking possibility of an existentially-chilling remove. (Ford’s film intimates the hubris of any such “immediate” perspective that proposes to have access to this war-time-world). I suppose immediacy is a workable decision in theory, opting for the shiv-in the-gut tightness of Jules Dassin or Nicholas Ray, two masculine directors remarkably attuned to the fragility of the male ego and the essential incoherence of the masculine mindset. But The Wall has no such desires beyond its simple allegorical construction wherein the US is hunting an unknown, unfinishable threat and grossly out of their league in the Middle East. That’s true and all, but The Hurt Locker was, what, a decade ago now?
The Wall operates as though the most meaningful political statement it can volunteer in 2017 is that America doesn’t know what it is doing in the Middle East (in point of fact, it often knows exactly what brand of imperialism it’s hawking). Or better yet, the film proffers the perennial and undefeatable “war is hell” mantra. You can find war films with more texture anywhere you look, especially if you look to Sam Fuller or Sam Peckinpah. Or if you just happen to be wandering into a bag of rocks or broken glass. A real wartime masterpiece should be a play of altered states, a work at the frontiers of the mind rather than merely the borderlands of location photography. The Wall offers one state – “thrilling” – and even then hits it somewhat indifferently.
I suppose, though, that The Wall is at least an auxiliary achievement. It basically boils down to a pair of soldiers played by Aaron Taylor Johnson and John Cena trapped behind a brick wall (or well, one of them is behind the wall, the other is bleeding out in the open) pinned down by a sniper. It’s certainly limited in its own ways – there’s no room for thematic porousness or tonal hybridity here – but Liman’s down-and-dirty drudge nonetheless occasionally taps into a kind of primordial or primitive strength that scrapes away all the politicking of war and leaves nothing but a bare husk of milieu.
Still, the brutish filmmaking doesn’t make the unseen Iraqi bogeyman go down smoother, and there’s little to indicate that the cartoonish-ness of the horror-type villain is meant as an internal reflection of a military psychology. In fact, the bruised-and-battered realism of the aesthetic almost actively precludes any such interiorized reading. A generous reading of the limited nature of the film’s perspective would place blame on the conscious minimalism of the production. A skeptical reading (probably the more correct one) would locate failure on this American production’s essential disinclination to consider other perspectives, for fear that the latter would shatter its barely-taped together worldview. It’s very hard to imagine this film tipping above one standard deviation from the middle for any viewer.