In American Made, facts matter less than fiction.
This past weekend, American Made lost out on the top box office spot in a neck and neck race with It, missing first place by a scant $300,000. However, when comparing what happens in the “biopic” to the events that inspired the film, there’s a Grand Canyon-sized gap. Universal’s film may be billed as based on the life of smuggler and freelance CIA spy Barry Seal, but the film’s director, Doug Liman, is hesitant to label the picture as a biopic. Apparently, calling American Made a biopic is cinematic catfishing.
We all know that biographic films play it fast and loose with facts. It’s nearly impossible to take one person’s life and compress it into a two-hour film while including a riveting arc, compelling characters, and meaningful themes. Adapting the life of someone like Barry Seal is even more difficult because one tends to keep their covert work with drug lords and government agencies under wraps. American Made still keeps its WTF meter cranked all the way up. There are several scenes showing Barry partying like a rock star with his chum Pablo Escobar (which didn’t happen). And although the film never addresses rumors that Barry flew the getaway plane for JFK’s killers, that revelation wouldn’t feel out of line.
American Mades’s plot isn’t true, it’s truthy, and Liman will be the first to admit it. In a recent interview with Vulture Liman stated,
You know, we’re not making a biopic. Tom Cruise doesn’t look like Barry Seal. His character is inspired by the stories we learned about Barry, and a lot of times, stories like this, not only do journalists look at the veracity of the actual events portrayed, but also the personal aspects.
American Made is so wild and over-the-top it’s worth noting what’s real and what isn’t. If even 10% is true that still amounts to one hell of a story. The good people over at History vs Hollywood took the time to fact-check some of American Made’s artistic liberties. Major spoilers below.
In the film, Barry’s dealings with the CIA all go through a shady point-man named Monty Schafer (played by Domhnall Gleeson). Schafer recruits Barry and is quick to disavow him when things go south.
Schafer never existed. The character is an amalgamation of the numerous CIA contacts Barry dealt with.
Suburban crash landing:
One of the film’s set pieces sees Barry, pursued by the DEA, crash-land his plane in a residential neighborhood. Watching a frantic Barry emerge from the wreckage, covered in cocaine, with the DEA hot on his tail is so insane that it must be true. Right?
Nope! There’s no evidence to support this incident ever took place.
Barry the family man:
A good portion of the film is dedicated to Barry’s home life and his relationship with his wife Lucy (played by Sarah Wright) and three children.
The real Barry Seal was married three times and had five children. And while his movie wife was aware of Barry’s illegal activities, his real wife insists she was kept in the dark about her husband’s shady dealings.
Barry Seal’s blown cover:
In the film’s most pivotal moment, the Reagan administration outs Barry as a snitch on national television, marking him as a target for the cartel. Barry’s outing is the film’s most chilling moment and it’s shocking that his handlers would recklessly out the identity of their own asset.
It was a 1984 front-page Washington Times article by Edmond Jacoby that circuitously exposed Barry.
Whether we’re watching giant robots punch each other in the face or a drug smuggler’s life story, walking into movie theaters is like signing an agreement to suspend our disbelief. Movies based on real life must take liberties with the truth in service of entertainment. But at a time when people are arguing over what constitutes a fact, I’m not sure how I feel about American Made grossly misrepresenting the origins of America’s cocaine epidemic. At least Liman is telling anyone within earshot not to take his film literally. In an interview with Time, Liman referred to American Made as, “A fun lie based on a true story.”
At least Cruise did all the flying himself.