American Made (2017)

American Made first published by RealCrime Magazine

American Made claims to be “based on a true story”, but the life and death of Adler ‘Barry’ Seal are mired in all manner of controversy and conspiracy theory. According to the film, he was a cigar-smuggling TWA pilot recruited by the CIA in 1978 first to fly reconnaissance missions over Central America, and then to transport arms to the Contras in Nicaragua. On the return trips, he began, for personal profit, running Medellín cocaine into the US – until eventually, when he was caught, his different deals with the DEA and Oliver North would see him informing on the Cartel suppliers, and eventually, in 1986, being murdered by them.

The reality is murkier. According to Daniel Hopsicker, author of Barry & The Boys, 2001, Seal had been working for the CIA since the late Fifties in operations against Fidel Castro. Wilder theories link him to the JFK assassination, and even claim that Seal himself was assassinated for knowing too much on the orders of George H.W. Bush (see Shaun Attwood‘s American Made: Who Killed Barry Seal? Pablo Escobar or George H.W. Bush, 2016). On the other hand, FBI Agent Del Hahn, author of Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal (2016), insists that Seal was simply a drug smuggler turned DEA informant, and that there is no credible evidence of him ever having any connection with the CIA.

Certainly Gary Spinelli’s witty screenplay is full of flights of fancy. Names are changed, characters and events are invented. Seal’s unrelenting commitment to his wife Debbie (here renamed Lucy and played by Sarah Wright) and three children keeps us in sympathy with the amoral gun- and drug-runner, although for this the film conveniently elides the fact that Seal had had two previous wives and children – one of whom, Lisa Seal Frigon, unsuccessfully sued to halt production on the film. 

Not that these fictions matter. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) – whose own father led the Senate’s investigation into the Iran-Contra affair – is more interested in deconstructing the image of star Tom Cruise, and with it, our fuzzy feelings about the American Dream that Cruise so often embodies, but that here is both defined and corrupted by an unhealthy collision of politics and greed. As Seal, Cruise may (mostly) retain his trademark grin, but as, within the film, he loses a tooth, a pair of aviator sun glasses and any moral compass, his pilot is less Top Gun than unethical antihero, caught in the crosswinds of Cold War and hard commerce. The result is an Eighties-inflected blend of Blow (2001) and The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), hilarious, bombastic and cynical to the bitter end.

© Anton Bitel