Tom Cruise is famous for doing his own stunts, but that doesn't mean that all of his movies are all that realistic. Mission: Impossible doesn't exactly scream based on a true story, for instance. Cruise's new film, however, American Made is inspired by real events, and what insane events they are. American Made is based on the true story of Barry Seal, a pilot turned drug runner and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) informant who was a key player in the USA's war on drugs — on both sides.
American Made tracks Barry (as played by Cruise) as he goes from being just a regular commercial pilot to a drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar. He is then recruited to smuggle guns across the border by CIA agent Monty "Schafer" (Domhnall Gleeson), a somewhat reckless operative who seduces Barry with promises of wealth and patriotism. Working with both the Medellin Cartel and the US government is a sweet deal for Barry, at least for a little while, but the adrenaline and fun wears off after a while as the film goes on. The entire more is told from Barry's point of view, and the man is far from a reliable narrator, which is part of why it's so hard to definitively call American Made a true story. Parts of the story are true, but others, not so much.
Watching American Made, one wonders if the real Seal was loyal to the US or the Cartel, and the true answer seems to be neither. In real life, Seal started working for the Medellin Cartel after making contact with a smuggler in a Honduran prison. He later became a DEA informant after he was arrested in 1983 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for smuggling Quaaludes into the country. In exchange for his freedom, he became a government source. Over the years, he was involved in many different deals in various Latin American countries, but he is most famous for gathering intel in Nicaragua, where he was sent by the US government to deliver guns to the Contras militia.
Spoilers ahead! It was Seal's dealings in Nicaragua that would bring an end to his dangerous days of drug running and trading on information. According to the Independent, Seal was named as a DEA informant in an article from the Wall Street Journal about the United States' involvement in the political unrest of Nicaragua and was dismissed as an informant soon after. Not only did the article cost Seal his government protection, it also outed him to the Cartel. Seal was shot dead in 1986 in what is believed to have been an assassination by the Cartel.
There have been reports that Seal's drug smuggling was actually enabled by the CIA, an idea present in the film. However, in real life, the agency has denied any and all connections to him. "There is not one iota of credible evidence that Seal ever worked for the CIA or assisted them in any operations," former FBI agent Del Hahn, who wrote a book on Seal, told Vice. But, just because there is no evidence doesn't mean it didn't happen, especially in the world of covert spy operations. That said, director Doug Liman has made it very clear that American Made is not supposed to be an exact retelling of Seal's real life. "You know, we're not making a biopic," he said in an interview with Vulture. "Tom Cruise doesn't look like Barry Seal. His character is inspired by the stories we learned about Barry."
American Made is based on a true story, but that true story is shrouded in mystery and government secrecy. Nobody really knows the facts about Seal's involvement with the DEA, CIA, or even the Cartel. Or if they do, they're not talking. So, whatever you do, take the true story of American Made with a grain of salt.