American Made [Movie]
The 2017 film American Made, starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, and Sarah Wright Olsen, is a fictionalized retelling of events in the life of smuggler and pilot Barry Seal, who, during the 1980s, transported drugs and guns between Central America and the United States. The film was written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman. Although not filmed in Arkansas, parts of the film are set in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and Mena (Polk County). American Made had an estimated budget of $50 million and was released in the United States on September 29, 2017.
The film opens in 1978 with Cruise playing commercial airline pilot Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, who occasionally smuggles contraband on his flights. At an airport bar, Seal meets fictional CIA agent Monty Schafer (Gleeson), who takes Seal to an airport hangar, where he shows him a new twin-engine airplane and offers him a “covert” job taking aerial photographs of rebel encampments in Central America for a company called Independent Aviation Consultants (IAC). Agent Schafer tells Seal that Seal will be the head of the company. But he warns that if anyone, including Seal’s wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), finds out about their “after hours” activities, “that’d be a problem.”
Seal is later shown flying over Guatemala and being fired upon by forces on the ground. At the same time, Agent Schafer is shown taking credit for Seal’s aerial photographs in Washington DC. Seal also flies over El Salvador and is later given a new assignment to deliver intelligence in Panama to and from dictator Manuel Noriega.
In 1980, Seal flies to Colombia, where he is picked up while trying to refuel his airplane and taken to famed drug smuggler Pablo Escobar, who offers to pay Seal “$2,000 per kilo” to help Escobar smuggle his cocaine to Miami, Florida, from a small landing strip in the Colombian jungle. Before Seal can refuse, Escobar has Seal’s plane filled with packages of “product.” Seal tells them that he has a better plan: dropping the drugs from his plane over Louisiana. Escobar later hands Seal a bag of money just as the police invade his house. Seal tries to escape but is arrested. In jail, Seal is bailed out by Agent Schafer, who tells Seal that Seal and his family have to leave Louisiana.
Following the election of Ronald Reagan, Agent Schafer tells Seal that he has a new job for Seal in Mena. Seal moves his family to Arkansas, where he meets with Agent Schafer, who takes him to the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. Agent Schafer shows Seal a shipment of AK-47s and gives him the intelligence he needs to fly the guns to Central America undetected. Seal hires four other pilots to fly missions for him in which they begin shipping both drugs and guns back and forth from Central America. Agent Schafer informs Seal he now has to smuggle Contras (U.S.-backed rebel forces attempting to overthrow Nicaragua’s left-wing government) to Mena, where they are going to “train.”
Seal’s operation expands as the military takes over part of his airport to train the Contras there. Now a very successful businessman, Seal opens a bank account in Mena and buys his wife a new Cadillac. In 1983, Seal and his pilots nearly get caught flying over the Gulf of Mexico. After learning of Seal’s large bank deposits, FBI agent Craig McCall (E. Roger Mitchell) arrives in Mena, where one bank has given Seal his own vault.
Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol forces Seal to land his plane. Seal crash lands in a suburban neighborhood, where he emerges from his plane covered in cocaine but manages to escape. After accepting another job from Escobar, Seal gives his brother-in-law J. B. (Caleb Landry Jones) a passport and a bag of money with orders to disappear. After driving away, J. B.’s car explodes, killing him. Seal is arrested and taken to the Pulaski County Courthouse, where he meets with fictional Attorney General Dana Sibota (Jayma Mays), who lets Seal go after a call from Governor Bill Clinton. Seal is then taken to an airport and flown via private jet to the White House in Washington DC.
In 1984, Seal meets with Oliver North and other officials, who ask Seal to take more photographs, this time for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Seal secretly photographs Escobar and his men loading and unloading his airplane. At home, Seal and his family see his “confidential” photos being shown on television by President Reagan. He is later arrested and sentenced to community service. On December 20, 1985, Seal tapes his confession using a video camera at a motel. On February 19, 1986, Seal makes another video before being assassinated in his car. The film ends with a montage linking Agent Schafer and Seal’s planes to the Iran-Contra Affair. Lucy is seen working at a fast food restaurant with a diamond bracelet on her wrist.
The film diverges wildly from what is known about Barry Seal. The real-life Barry Seal was an overweight former pilot who had served in both the Louisiana National Guard and in the Twentieth Special Forces Group for six years before working for the airline TWA. In the film, actor Tom Cruise plays him as a cocky young pilot not unlike Cruise’s character Maverick in 1986’s Top Gun. Agent Schafer, played by Gleeson, is entirely fictional, as the real Seal began smuggling well before the two characters met in the film. Other events in the film, including Seal landing a plane full of cocaine in a suburban neighborhood, never happened. The real Seal had at least five children, not three, and was married three times. While the extent of his work with the CIA is unknown, Seal was a known drug smuggler who did move his operation to Arkansas. In fact, the film’s original name was Mena, but this was reportedly changed to lessen the emphasis on its connections to Arkansas.
The film opened to more than $16 million its first weekend in the United States and Canada and grossed nearly $135 million worldwide. Most critics praised the film, even as they described it as something of a generic Tom Cruise feature. Director Liman acknowledged that the film did not attempt to be accurate to history and was not meant to be a biopic.
Seal’s exploits have been documented by several writers including Mara Leveritt in her 1999 and 2021 books The Boys on the Tracks and All Quiet at Mena and in Del Hahn’s 2016 book Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal.
For additional information:
“American Made.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3532216/ (accessed May 21, 2022).
Bowden, Bill. “’80s Drug, Gun Saga Remains a Sore Spot.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 1, 2017, pp. 1A, 8A.
Leveritt, Mara. All Quiet at Mena: A Reporter’s Memoir of Buried Investigations. Little Rock: Bird Call Press, 2021.
———. “Who’s Afraid of Barry Seal?” Arkansas Times, September 28, 2017. Online at https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2017/09/28/whos-afraid-of-barry-seal (accessed May 21, 2022).
Cody Lynn Berry
Last Updated: 05/21/2022