The True Story Behind the Movie American Made

7 minute read

American Made, the new Tom Cruise crime drama out Sept. 29, has all the makings of a romp: drug running and arms smuggling. An FBI sting. Enough cold, hard cash to make the phenomenon of raining money a plausible ecological scenario. And a sex scene in the cockpit of a plane. That’s flying through the air. With one participant being the pilot. Did we mention it’s Tom Cruise?

If it sounds like an exercise in screenwriting excess, it’s not entirely — the film takes as its inspiration the true story of Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, a TWA pilot who became a drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel and, later, an informant for the DEA. It’s an ideal vehicle for Cruise, a.k.a. Maverick, whose mischievous swagger is accented here (literally) with a Louisiana drawl.

The movie hardly purports to be a documentary — director Doug Liman, who reteams with Cruise after Edge of Tomorrow, has referred to it as “a fun lie based on a true story.” And perhaps its looseness with the facts is for the best, as conflicting accounts make it difficult to get a clear picture on certain aspects of Seal’s seemingly made-for-the-movies life. It’s a thorny story that takes place against the backdrop of the Reagan-era War on Drugs and the notorious Iran-Contra affair, with Seal never hesitating to do business with opposing sides, so long as the payout was prodigious.

Here’s what we know about Seal — and what’s still up for debate.

MORE: Review: American Made Lets a Smug Tom Cruise Just Be Tom Cruise

Fact: Seal was an unusually talented young pilot.

According to Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal — written by retired FBI agent Del Hahn, who worked on the task force that went after Seal in the ’80s — Seal obtained his student pilot license at 15 and became fully licensed at 16. His instructor was so impressed by his natural talent that he allowed him to fly solo after only eight hours of training. After serving in the National Guard and Army Reserve, he became a pilot with TWA, among the youngest command pilots to operate a Boeing 707.

Fact: He had a colorful personality.

As Cruise plays him, Seal was a blend of balls and braggadocio, fond of stunts and rarely registering the possibilities of danger or failure. According to Hahn, Seal’s high school yearbook photo was accompanied by the inscription, “Full of fun, full of folly.” His flight instructor described him as wild and fearless and generally unconcerned with the consequences of his actions. In an interview with Vice, Hahn says Seal was personable but “not as smart and clever as he thought he was.”

Partly Fiction: He was married to a woman named Lucy and they had three kids.

Sarah Wright plays Seal’s delightfully foul-mouthed wife in the movie, alternately exasperated by his schemes and enthralled by the riches they bring. In reality, Seal was married three times and had five children. He had a son and daughter with first wife Barbara Bottoms, whom he married in 1963 and subsequently divorced. He then married Linda McGarrh Ross in 1971, divorcing a year later, before marrying Deborah Ann DuBois, with whom he would go on to have three children, in 1974.

Fiction: The government first took notice of his smuggling when he was transporting Cuban cigars.

While the film depicts Seal’s foray into smuggling as beginning with Cuban cigars, his first documented run-in with the law for a smuggling offense took place in 1972 when he was one of eight people arrested for a plot to smuggle explosives out of the U.S. Though he wasn’t convicted, he lost his job with TWA. By 1976, according to Hahn, he had moved onto marijuana, and within a couple of years graduated to cocaine, which was less bulky, less sniffable by dogs and generally more profitable.

Fact: He smuggled drugs in through the Louisiana coast.

Seal and the pilots he recruited — including one he met in jail and his first wife’s brother — trafficked drugs over the border of his home state. As in the movie, he sometimes delivered them by pushing packed duffel bags out of his plane and into the Atchafalaya basin, to be retrieved by partners on the ground.

Mostly Fiction: Seal was chummy with the leaders of Colombia’s Medellín Cartel, including Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers.

In the movie, Seal meets the cartel big wigs early on. In reality, Hahn writes, he did not deal with them directly, and they referred to him only as “El Gordo,” or “The Fat Man.” He finally met with them in April 1984 when he was working with the DEA on a sting operation intended to lead to their capture. (That operation would go awry when Seal’s status as an informant was revealed in a Washington Times cover story months later.)

Fact: Seal offered to cooperate with the DEA to stay out of prison.

The DEA was onto Seal for a long time before securing an indictment against him in March 1983 on several counts, including conspiracy to distribute methaqualone and possession with intent to distribute Quaaludes. As the movie suggests, there was some confusion among government agencies intent on taking him down.

His initial attempt to make a deal with a U.S. attorney, offering information on the Ochoa family, was rejected. But in March 1984, he traveled to Washington to the office of the Vice President’s Drug Task Force and cut a deal on the strength of his intel on and connections to the cartel.

Contested: He worked for many years alongside the CIA.

The film has Seal’s involvement with the CIA beginning in the late 1970s, relatively early on in his smuggling career. Under the handling of an agent played by Domhnall Gleeson, Cruise’s Seal gathers intelligence by flying low over Guatemala and Nicaragua and snapping photos from his plane. Later, the CIA turns a blind eye to his drug smuggling in exchange for his delivery of arms to the Contras in Nicaragua, who the U.S. government was attempting to mobilize against the leftist Sandinistas, who controlled the government. The movie even suggests that the CIA helped set Seal up with his very own airport in the small town of Mena, Ark.

According to Hahn’s book, rumors of Seal’s involvement with the CIA anytime before 1984 were just that — rumors. The only confirmed connection between Seal and the CIA turned up by Hahn’s research was in 1984, after Seal had begun working as an informant for the DEA. The CIA placed a hidden camera in a cargo plane Seal flew to pick up a cocaine shipment in Colombia. He and his copilot were able to obtain photographs that proved a link between the Sandinistas and the cartel, key intelligence for the Reagan administration in its plans to help overthrow the Sandinistas’ regime. But the final piece of the operation — a celebration of the successful cocaine transport, at which the Ochoas and Escobar were to be arrested all at once — never happened because of the revelation of Seal’s status as an informant.

Fact: Seal was assassinated in 1986.

Jorge Ochoa reportedly ordered a hit on Seal early in 1986. At the time, Seal was living in a Baton Rouge Salvation Army facility. Charges against him had not been fully erased as a result of his cooperation with the government, and he was sentenced to probation and six months residing at the treatment center. On the evening of Feb. 19, just after he parked his Cadillac, he was killed by two Colombian hitmen armed with machine guns.

Thanks in part to several witnesses, both men and four additional men who conspired in the killing were arrested within two days. Seal would go down as a legendary criminal, one of the most important witnesses in DEA history and — in Hollywood’s estimation, at least — a classic American story fit for only our most American onscreen hero.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Eliza Berman at