I find Tom Cruise confusing, since he does his most interesting work when he plays assholes, but I don’t know if he thinks he’s acting in those moments. And it’s not like he picks movies specifically so that he can be an asshole in them, with the possible exception of the deliberate cartoon in Tropic Thunder which I’ve always assumed was some kind of in-joke payback against a producer he knew and hated. For all I know, Tom thought he was the hero in Edge of Tomorrow, when by far his best contribution to the movie was being a weasel.
Something similar is in play in American Made, a movie where Tom Cruise plays a superficially charming man who flies guns and drugs for the CIA, the contras and the Medellin cartel. This is not a job where anyone with even a sketchy understanding of right and wrong could possibly think he’s the hero, yet the whole thing’s set up to make Barry Seal a breezy, fun guy to be with, just trying to scrape by as he makes millions ferrying death in all directions for people who’ve killed more people than ebola.
At some level, you know that this is nonsense, even before you take some time after the movie to read up on the real Barry Seal, who seems to have been a much bigger jerk than the movie version. For example, he didn’t walk off the job with TWA because he was bored, but because they fired him after he got arrested on the edges of a conspiracy to smuggle explosives to anti-Castro Cubans. Sure, everyone’s got a story to tell in their own minds about how they’re nice guys really, and if they weren’t doing it someone else would be, but that only works for them, because they need it to work for them if they’re going to be able to live with themselves. It’s not going to work for anyone watching from the outside.
And a truthful movie could have been made about that contradiction, with Cruise being a perfectly credible weasel; he can do weasels. But Cruise’s Seal is a likeable schmuck. He muddles through almost everything except flying. Half the time he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the rest of the time he does it anyway and gets it wrong. And it’s fun; he’s an engaging enough person, and it rings true that he grins and blusters his way out of scrape after scrape.
Right up until he doesn’t. There’s a moment about half way through the movie when you see something which we’ve never seen in a Cruise movie before; a missing tooth. That perfect, not-quite-symmetrical, grin gets a gap put into it. For ten minutes, there’s a little black space there as Cruise struggles with everything falling apart; then everything magically starts coming back together again for him, and somewhere off screen he gets to the dentist, and it’s back to shucking and jiving for another hour and a bit, and then the chickens REALLY come home to roost.
And Tom gets shot. Dead. This is not quite as novel as his teeth not being absolutely perfect, but usually Tom can walk off being shot dead. I’ve lost count of his moments of resurrection at this stage. This time, Tom stays resolutely dead. Which pretty much comes out of nowhere. We never see the cartel or the contras at their business; all the deaths  have been airbrushed out of the wacky action, making it easy for us to pretend that this is all harmless. Then boom.
At the time my main thought was “Well, that was mood whiplash.” Happy clappy fun movie about drug smuggling, and then downer ending as our narrator gets killed. Did not see that coming. But there’s a weirder angle to it when I brood on it a bit. We’re given just one death that really matters, and it’s the star. And it’s carefully choreographed to be a martyrdom, almost an act of nobility. Tom knows he’s a marked man and that he could run, but if he did, the cartel would go after his family. So he sends them off, far away, and stakes himself out there to take the consequences of his life of crime.
Which leaves me retrospectively annoyed with the whole exercise. We’re rooting for, and then supposed to be sorry for, a guy who was smart enough to know that every load he carried was going to kill dozens of people. The US government is set up to look sleazy and inept, and all the deadly consequences of the idiocy are airbrushed out of the narrative so as not to complicate our reaction to that one numbing kill at the end. It’s a perfect modern American movie that way.
And one small story telling quibble; for no particularly good reason, they hire Jesse Plemmons to play a small town sheriff who completely misses the whole conspiracy which has practically engulfed his county. And then when every federal agency EVAR shows up to arrest Barry Seal, the director missed the chance either to include the sheriff as one more law man screaming “nobody move” in all directions, or cut away to him sitting in his office wondering why all the police are suddenly in town. I hope there’s a deleted scene of that somewhere.
 OK, all but one. The cartel whack Seal’s worthless brother in law with a carbomb, but it’s been set up in such a way that you pretty much wish they’d done it twice.