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Most Hollywood blockbusters attempting to involve aviation miss the mark. Sure, they may make flying appear marvelous or daring, but if you’re like me and can’t help but be compulsively critical about the specifics they missed, one or two noticed inconsistencies and the movie’s ruined. Details that would go unnoticed by some, like cockpits that match the aircraft type or specific aviation syntax and procedures, are usually egregious enough to just slightly undermine my suspension of disbelief. While I always appreciate seeing aviation as a focus in movies, I pray writers/producers do their research. Sure, most viewers couldn’t care less about how accurately flying is depicted, but in the case of the new Tom Cruise vehicle, American Made, I was curious — especially since flying is the central component to the story.
To my relief — and that of my fellow aviation-loving movie-goers — Doug Liman’s action-packed movie about the intricate web of smuggling and illicit activity by the Carter and Reagan administrations stands out as a break from the norm. AvGeeks will undoubtedly appreciate the clear attention to detail that the film crew paid to make the flying believable. The protagonist, Barry Seal — played by Tom Cruise — and his smuggling missions (“based on a true lie”) are the centerpiece of the film; at its core, the movie is about an expert pilot and the decisions he makes — and is forced to make. This approach to storytelling required that the actual flying be pretty rock-solid and Cruise pulls it off well.
Sure, it’s not perfect, but why pick apart a film that did its research and did it well? (Note: I’m not a film critic — just an aviation enthusiast looking out for fellow movie-going AvGeeks.)
SPOILER ALERT: Minor spoilers — involving locations and some action sequences — to follow.
1. Tom Cruise is convincing as a pilot.
Throughout the film, Cruise’s Seal is wholly convincing as a well-trained and highly experienced airline pilot; he asks the right questions and makes the right decisions. Even his reactions, like getting excited about things that any plane-loving pilot would, are spot-on; when he’s first introduced to the plane he’ll be using on his smuggling runs, he can’t help but marvel in its glory. On multiple occasions, we see Cruise-as- Seal caressing the aircraft, admiring it the way a racer does a slick, new car.
2. The airplane actually matches the flight deck!
Although Seal is an airline pilot (he spends the majority of the film flying in a speedy twin-engine propeller plane), we only see him in the cockpit of a commercial jet a couple of times. Based on an exterior shot, he’s flying 727s and yes, TWA was flying 727s in the late 1970s. When they actually showed him in the flight deck, I was impressed; it looks as it should. What a relief!
3. They get the airline preflight right.
There’s a brief scene where we see Seal running through preflight procedures with his first officer aboard a 727. These checklists are what pilots do while they get the airplane ready for engine-start, taxi and takeoff; the non-flying pilot reads items from a checklist and the pilot-in-command (the one who will be doing the flying) makes sure all switches, knobs, etc. are in the right place. In the movie, what was read aloud was true to form: thrust levelers set to idle, engine start levers set to cutoff, fire-detection alarms, windows closed, all properly done.
And — here’s where I was really impressed — any experienced pilot-in-command already knows the checklist from memory and has their hands on all the associated switches before they’re even said aloud. In the film, like the experienced captain that he is, Cruise’s Seal does just that.
4. Air Traffic Control (ATC) is on point — and changes accordingly.
Although the action picks up over time and accurately depicts ATC becoming less and less important, their presence is a minor thing that AvGeeks will appreciate. You’ll notice they’re listening to the control tower (or, more specifically, ground control) over the radio while awaiting taxi and takeoff. Most films tend to leave it at that, and use similar audio for other instances when you hear ATC communications over the radio. Yet again, there’s this noticeable attention to detail. In the movie, once at cruising altitude, you’ll actually hear communication more aligned with what one would hear at cruise: pilots asking about airport direction, checking in and out of that airspace and so on.
5. Flying slow means flaps down.
Ever notice when you’re on approach to land or taxiing for takeoff, the plane makes weird noises and pieces in the wings slide outwards and down? Those are called “flaps” and “slats” and in effect, they increase the lift generated by the wing. The result allows planes to fly while going much slower than if they didn’t have them. Without flaps, planes would be landing at much faster speeds, and would require long runways to take off. In several instances throughout the film, Cruise-as-Seal must fly low and slow. Like any good pilot, he lowers some flaps to achieve the reduced speed while still maintaining steady flight.
6. They know how you call an audible.
There’s a sequence in the film when Cruise-as-Seal is flying low over the jungle in his trusty twin-engine and gun shots from below knock out the left one. He takes two important steps to deal with operating on only one engine (that I could takeaway at least). First, he puts the flaps down, which, as explained in #5, helps account for lower speed (and increased drag), thereby increasing lift. Secondly, and bear with me here, when you’re flying a plane with two engines and one of them is no longer functioning, the airplane’s remaining engine will push the plane to the side of the nonfunctioning engine, requiring the pilot to apply lots of rudder to correct. In other words, when losing the left engine, the plane will slide to the left and a pilot needs to counteract the movement. After Seal loses this engine and lowers the flaps, he applies rudder trim to correct the sliding and is able to fly safely away.
7. They understand aircraft weight and altitude restrictions.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Seal works for both the CIA (among other government agencies) and the infamous Medellín drug cartel (think Pablo Escobar). As Seal is introduced to the Colombian cartel, he must fly out of a remote airport, high in the mountains, in a plane filled with cocaine. Worse, it has a really short runway — the ends of which are littered with wreckage from prior failed attempts to take off.
Seal identifies the problem: High altitude means thinner air, thinner air means less thrust, requiring a longer runway. (Ever wonder why Denver’s airport has the longest runway in North America?) It’s a fun scene, because Seal has to explain to the Colombians that even though it looks like there’s more room, he literally won’t be able to take off due to the constraints. Hilariously, Pablo and the others then take bets if he’ll make it off the ground or crash like the others.
8. Yes! It is called a yoke.
One of my biggest — and most common — pet peeves whenever aviation is a part of any feature film is the terminology. Just as the writers got it right with the preflight procedures and ATC, they too remembered that an airplane steering wheel is in fact called a “yoke.”
9. Crash landing? Engines off. Thank you.
If you’ve seen American Made’s trailer, you’ll notice a scene where Seal crash-lands on a road in a suburban community. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of every aspect of it, I loved how Cruise-as-Seal turns off both engines right around touch-down. He correctly assumes that he’ll be smashing into trees and cars while slowing down and, by powering down the engines, he greatly reduces the risk of either engine exploding upon contacting these ground objects.
It’s accurate enough that it’s not distracting and means we can immerse ourselves deeper in the story — and actively enjoy the aviation sequences. And for a Hollywood blockbuster, that’s just awesome.
Have you seen American Made? Feel free to add other bits you liked, or that I missed, in the comments below.
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