Without the sassy Tom Cruise smile and his charismatic maverick on a roll charm “American Made” would fall flat. The based-on-a-true-story flick is an American outlaw adult fairy tale with the kind of ending that will satisfy the old-fashioned Law & Order types.
Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”), “American Made,”‘ lets Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal tell his story in videotapes and what we later learn are flashbacks to his glory days.
Seal is a hotshot pilot–one of the youngest to command a Boeing 707–with a steady job working for TWA, but this good ole Louisiana boy wants more. Seal is locked into a routine that has become mundane. There’s no danger; he mischievously adds a little turbulence to a routine flight. He has other ways of adding a little extra to his salary because he’s also carrying a little contraband: Cuban cigars. His activities do not go unnoticed by the CIA, but they are willing to turn a blind-eye to that if Seal is willing to become a consultant and fly reconnaissance missions over a variety of South American countries and take photos. Seal likes the money and hasn’t quite told his wife what he’s doing–she still believes he’s working for TWA. (The 55-year-old Cruise is paired with the 33-year-old Sarah Wright. )
The CIA isn’t the only organization with eyes on illegal trade and suspicious comings-and-goings. As Seal presents it, he was just refueling his plane, minding his own CIA sponsored business when he’s taken at gunpoint into the Colombian jungle for a business meeting with three drug dealers (including Pablo Escobar) who need a hotshot pilot to fly out of their too-short runway for some cocaine deliveries. Given the do-it-or-die situation, and the appeal to his healthy ego, Seal manages to safety take the cocaine-filled plane and make drops in the US. Seal’s little white lie to his wife comes crashing down and, with the help of the CIA and agreement to gun-run to the Contras, Seal moves to Mena, Arkansas where the CIA gives him a house and an airfield.
The CIA fails to understand what the Contras really want, but Seal makes it a win-win situation by dealing with the Contras, the drug cartel and the CIA in a way that everyone is paying Seal and everyone, but the CIA will be content for a while. Then the wife’s loser brother comes along and the good times becomes not-so-good.
Now, remember, this is Seal’s version of the events. The real Seal was more entrepreneurial on the drug smuggling front and less monogamous on the marital front. He also may have joined up with the CIA earlier than this movie suggests. According to a Slate article “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in ‘American Made,'” Seal transported plastic explosives to anti-Castro Cubans in Mexico. The article also notes that Seal was smuggling marijuana since 1976 and cocaine in 1978–before contact with the cartel.
Time magazine also tells “The True Story Behind the Movie ‘American Made.'” Seal wasn’t married once. He was married three times: Barbara Bottoms (two children), Linda McGarrh Ross and Deborah Ann DuBois (three children). Seal lost his job at TWA after being arrested for smuggling explosives out of the US.
As is often the case, the real Seal wasn’t trim and attractive like Cruise. The cartel referred to him as “El Gordo” or the fat man. Photos show that he was double-chinned and doughy.
Both articles note that part of Seal’s fate was sealed by his involvement with the DEA and CIA. NSC and CIA leaks resulted in the Washington Times running a front page story that blew his cover. Seal did make millions and he was involved in too many deals and one could never be sure who were the good guys.
Despite the rollicking good fun about a good ole boy, there’s an undertone of desperation, one that eventually reveals itself because the movie stays true to the last lonely days of Seal. In some ways, this movie harks to the lovable outlaw stories like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” full of charm and humor. Liman gives us a feeling of swooping exhilaration, moving almost too fast for us to ponder the consequences and still provides simplified explanations for all of the connections via animated graphics. Seal was an outlaw of contemporary times and if there’s any message in this film, it is: Don’t trust the CIA (but you already knew that).