American Made is one of those true-life tales that seem so far-fetched that it has to be invented. But like so many other things today, the truth is harder to believe than anything Hollywood could make up. Director Doug Liman teams again with Tom Cruise after their highly entertaining action-adventure Edge of Tomorrow to bring to the screen a CIA-inspired story of airline pilot-turned-U.S. government recruit in the one of the most bizarre and scandalous chapters in American history.

Cruise plays the heretofore little-known Barry Seal, a crackerjack TWA pilot who is spotted in the late-1970s as the perfect tool — or is that fool? — for a covert CIA operation that eventually turned him into a key, if unwitting, behind-the-scenes force in the notorious Iran-Contra affair. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch ), as played by Cruise, Seal is either a hustler, opportunist, fearless operator, entrepreneur, daredevil pilot, family man or, more likely, all of the above when he is brought in by CIA operative Monty Shaffer (a terrific Domhnall Gleeson) as basically a gun runner flying in AK-47s and kilos of cocaine to the initially fledgling cartels and drug kingpins in Central and South America.

Unbeknownst to his wife (Sarah Wright Olsen) and young family, Seal gives up his TWA job to begin this mission, which quickly turns into a highly illegal money-laundering enterprise in which Seal and his small air force of shady characters find themselves arming U.S.-backed Nicaraguan freedom fighters against the Sandinistas. Among those he finds himself in business with is Pablo Escobar and other future drug kings, while getting so many bags of cash for his efforts that he runs out of places to stash them in his hometown of Mena, AR, where he moved the family when he suddenly found himself in a business where he had to go deep underground. This covert operation was carried out by the Reagan administration for much of the 80s, even as the president and first lady touted their “Just Say No” to drugs program while the administration was secretly sponsoring Seal’s illegal drug- and gun-running activities.

The impressive original screenplay by relative newcomer Gary Spinelli plays much of this for laughs as he and director Liman set a satirical Wag the Dog -style tone that is perfectly pitched for this notorious tale. It would be the ultimate entertainment if it also didn’t ring true as a blueprint for the secret shenanigans and agendas that you just know our current administration is also up to their necks in with their own bulging scandals. Real footage of Reagan is used throughout to punctuate the realism Liman brings to this party, and the entire cast is up to the game including Gleeson, Wright Olsen, Jesse Plemons as a local Arkansas sheriff who’s very suspicious of Seal, and Caleb Landry Jones as JB, the Ozark-y lowbrow dimwit brother of Lucy who inadvertently threatens to blow everyone’s cover.

But overall this is Cruise’s show, the flip side of his highflying heroics in Top Gun that provide the best showcase for this movie star’s talents in some time. Think of his great, Oscar-nominated turns in Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia and Jerry Maguire, among other memorable Cruise roles, and add Barry Seal to the list. Cruise often spends too much time in big-budget box office movies that allow him to show off his superstar skills but not his innate acting talents. This one does both, and though I haven’t heard his named buzzed among Best Actor Oscar candidates yet this year, let me be among the first to throw his hat in that ring. He proves again he can be one of the best out there, and American Made gives him an Oscar-worthy role if ever there was one in an eye-opening, smart and sharp movie thinking Americans should be made to experience.

Producers are Brian Grazer, Brian Oliver, Doug Davison, Kim Roth, Ray Angelic and Tyler Thompson. Universal Pictures sends it out in wide release this Friday. All is forgiven for The Mummy.

Do you plan to see American Made? Let us know what you think.