The new film American Made tells one insane story. In it, a commercial airline pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) gets involved with drug smuggling for the notorious Pablo Escobar and is then recruited by the DEA and CIA to work for the U.S. government as a covert agent. It may sound far-fetched and, well, like a movie plot, but is Barry Seal from American Made a real person? Or is he just the next over the top Tom Cruise character who could easily be plugged in to the next Mission Impossible movie?
Although his exploits sound impressive even when compared to those of Ethan Hunt, Barry Seal was indeed a real person; and his story is just as crazy as what you'll see on screen in American Made. Seal was a pilot for practically his entire life, having first gotten his pilot's license when he was just 16 years old, according to The Independent's Clarisse Loughrey. He then had a stint in the National Guard before taking a job with TWA as a flight engineer in 1968 before then moving on to become a pilot for the airline, according to The Independent. So far, Seal's life certainly sounds impressive if not remarkable, but it's not exactly movie material worthy of a Tom Cruise performance. Just wait, though.
Seal's wife, Deborah Seal, claimed that her husband first became involved with drug smuggling in 1975, according to The Independent. After some small time smuggles with marijuana, Seal eventually came to be employed by Pablo Escobar — the infamous head of Colombia's powerful Medellin Cartel — as a cocaine smuggler. While working for Medellin in the early '80s, Seal began operating his drug-running business out of an airstrip in rural Arkansas, flying over 100 flights containing smuggled cocaine worth between $3 and $5 billion in the early part of the decade, according to The Independent. But in 1983, Seal was caught trying to smuggle quaaludes into Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is where things get really movie-worthy.
Not wanting to go to prison, Seal reached a deal with the DEA to become an informant in 1984, but it wasn't easy. "Shortly after he was indicted, Seal got in touch with [the under cover DEA agent who busted him, Randy] Beasley and the assistant US attorney handling the case, Bruce Zimet, offering to cooperate and give them the Ochoas from the Medellin Cartel ... they turned him down," former FBI agent and Smuggler's End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal author Del Hahn told Vice's Seth Ferranti. "He went back to Baton Rouge and tried to talk with our US attorney, Stan Bardwell. Bardwell didn't trust the attorney-go-between and refused to see Barry. So he flew to Washington, DC, and went to the office of the vice president's drug task force and offered to be an informant. They sent him to the DEA in Miami, where Agents Joura and Jacobsen became his handlers. March 28, 1984, is the date of the letter of agreement he signed with the US attorney in Miami."
Seal then became involved in a covert operation on behalf of the U.S. Government — some claim it was in service to the CIA but Hahn denies knowledge of this — to obtain evidence that the Sandinista Government of Nicaragua was working with the Medellin Cartel, according to The Independent. The Reagan administration supported the opposition to the Sandinistas, the Contras, and was looking for evidence that would help support their controversial position of overthrowing the Sandinistas. Seal obtained the evidence in the form of photographs, but a front page story in The Washington Times outed him as a covert agent, according to Vice. This led to his dismissal from the DEA, arrest by the FBI, and, in 1986, his assassination outside a halfway house, allegedly in a hit by the Medellin Cartel.
American Made's Barry Seal, a commercial pilot-turned drug smuggler-turned government informant, is certainly one crazy character fit for a Cruise movie, and he's made all the more insane by knowing that his Hollywood-ready exploits really happened.