American Made True Story: 10 Biggest Changes To Barry Seal’s Real Life

Summary

  • Barry Seal’s connection to the CIA is a subject of debate and conspiracy theories, but he never confirmed these claims himself.
  • In the movie American Made, Barry Seal’s brother-in-law, JB, is killed by a car bomb, but this never happened in real life.
  • The government’s interest in Barry Seal was due to his involvement in drug trafficking, not cigar smuggling as portrayed in the movie.

The 2017 film American Made, starring Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, captivated audiences with its stranger-than-fiction story about a drug runner for the CIA in an operation known as the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1980s. The movie featured a chapter of America’s dark history and involvement in the drug smuggling of cocaine onto US soil, depicting the true story with action, intrigue, and sometimes dark comedy. However, as in the case of many Hollywood movies, American Made took significant liberties for storytelling and entertainment.

Tom Cruise took on a drastically different role as Barry Seal, highlighting the worlds of aviation, adrenaline addiction, drug smuggling, and government espionage. However, the line between reality and fiction is blurred in this cinematic account. While American Made offered an attention-grabbing narrative, several elements and names were altered or entirely fictionalized for dramatic impact. The film’s director, Doug Liman, described the movie as “a fun lie based on a true story,” (via TIME), signaling that American Made wasn’t intended as a documentary about the notorious informant.

10 American Made Changes Barry Seal’s Wife’s Name

Lucy’s Real Name Was Deborah Seal

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Tom Cruise’s character, Barry Seal, is married to a woman named Lucy, portrayed by Sarah Wright in American Made. However, Barry Seal’s real-life wife was named Deborah Seal. Wright plays Seal’s foul-mouthed and supportive wife, who enjoyed all the extravaganza and rich lifestyle her husband’s activities brought to their lives throughout the film. However, Seal married three times and had five children: a son and a daughter from his first wife, Barbara Bottoms, and three children with his third wife, Deborah Ann DuBois.

Despite the fact that he was married in real life, Barry Seal’s wife in American Made likely isn’t based directly on any of his wives. This change makes sense for the movie, as his having different wives over the course of the story would not have allowed their relationship to become a central part of the film. Also, the fact that she was willingly profiting off of his work might have suggested criminal responsibility on her part, so it was best to explore that through a fictional character.

9 Monty Schafer Wasn’t A Real-Life CIA Agent

Monty Is A Composite Of Several Different Government Officials

Monty (Domhall Gleeson) holding a map in his hand in American Made

Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson impressively plays Monty Schafer, a CIA handler who recruits Barry Seal in a bar. However, Monty Schafer never existed in Seal’s real life. Monty is a composite character in American Made, created to streamline the story and embody various government connections that Seal may have had. Created to represent Barry Seal’s questionable connection with the CIA, Monty Schafer serves as the patriot handler who would go to extreme lengths and morally blur lines to serve his country.

Composite characters are a common thing used in movies based on true stories as they help to make things easier for the audience. While it might have been more accurate to have Seal deal with one shady operative after another, it is hard to say that it would have been more entertaining. Audiences are able to get to know Monty and understand his role in the movie. More importantly, Seal and Monty form a relationship that becomes an entertaining buddy team.

8 The Real Barry Seal Denied Having Worked For The CIA

There’s No Evidence That Seal Worked For The CIA

Barry (Tom Cruise) on the phone in American Made

Barry Seal consistently denied having worked directly for the CIA. While there are ongoing conspiracy theories about his involvement with intelligence agencies, Seal himself has never confirmed these claims. American Made, however, paints a much more explicit connection between Seal and the CIA. In Del Hahn’s book about Barry Seal’s life, Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal, there is no evidence to support any claims that Seal worked for the CIA.

Hahn was, in fact, part of the task force that pursued Seal in the 1980s. He uses several case documents and first-person accounts to dispel this idea and other half-truths about Seal. This is one of the most controversial details of the movie as the movie leans its “true story” heavily onto this wild detail that doesn’t seem to be true. It suggests that a large chunk of the exciting tale of Seal is a complete fabrication.

However, there is enough proof of the crimes and exploits of Seal’s life to make him a fun subject for a movie. The fact that he might not have been working with the CIA when he was doing these things should not destroy the enjoyment of the movie.

7 The Cartel Didn’t Kill Barry Seal’s Brother-In-Law With A Car Bomb

Barry Never Actually Had A Brother-in-law Who Was Killed By A Car Bomb

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American Made shows a dramatized version of Lucy’s brother JB, played by Caleb Landry Jones, who steals money from Barry and ends up attracting the attention of the local authorities. The cartel decides to deal with JB, even though Barry opposes it. JB then gets killed by a car bomb. However, the real Barry Seal never had a brother-in-law who was killed by a car bomb.

Despite the moment being a total invention of the movie, it is a key one in the story. While Barry is an anti-hero who brazenly breaks the law, this is a moment that serves as a reminder that he is worth cheering for because he doesn’t want to see people get hurt. However, the death of JB also serves as a wake-up call to Barry that he is dealing with dangerous people who will kill without a second thought.

6 The Government Didn’t First Take Notice of Barry Seal’s Smuggling Cuban Cigars

It Was Seal’s Drug Trafficking That Drew Unwanted Attention To Him

Alejandro Edda as Jorge Ochoa looking suspicious in American Made.

in American Made, the government’s interest in Barry Seal stemmed from his smuggling of Cuban cigars. However, this is a significant leap from reality. The real Barry Seal caught the government’s attention through his involvement in drug trafficking, not cigar smuggling. His criminal operations were far more severe and complex, including the smuggling of substantial quantities of cocaine and marijuana, and these various criminal activities are what led to his assassination, as explained in American Made’s ending.

This change in the movie is a clear sign of the tone they wanted to achieve with the movie and the facts that they had to skew in order to reach that tone. Making the smuggling offenses related to cigars allowed Barry to come off as a more likable character who is simply a roguish hero. Had the movie gone with the messier facts about Barry’s life, it is likely that it would have been a much darker film. It is also possible that the more complicated reality of Barry is not a character Tom Cruise would have wanted to play.

5 Seal’s Involvement With Pablo Escobar And The Ochoa Brothers Was Exaggerated

Seal Never Met Escobar Until After His Arrest

Alejandro Edda as Jorge Ochoa in American Made and Jorge Ochoa in real life.

The real Barry Seal was not as acquainted with the cartel bosses as American Made suggests, according to Del Hahn’s book. Seal didn’t meet Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers in person until 1984, after his arrest, while he was working as an informant for the DEA on an undercover operation. American Made portrayed Barry Seal as having a close-knit relationship with drug lord Pablo Escobar. However, in reality, Seal was just one of many pilots involved in drug trafficking for the Medellín cartel, making this portrayal an exaggerated account.

While the relationship might have been exaggerated, it is forgivable how American Made portrayed these fascinating figures. The fact that Seal did have connections to someone like Escobar, an infamous name in pop culture, it is obvious the movie would embrace that and want to feature him as a character. However, introducing Escobar in the movie cannot be in passing, so the untrue connection Seal had with him is made and provides an exciting element to the story.

4 Barry Seal Wasn’t Recruited By The CIA In A Bar

There’s No Evidence That Suggests The Way Seal Was Recruited Is Accurate

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This is yet another debated myth, since no facts remain on whether Barry Seal was working with the CIA or not. However, American Made dramatized Seal’s recruitment into the CIA by showing him being approached in a bar. There is no factual basis for this scene, marking another departure from reality. Even so, Barry Seal was indeed allowed to fly out of the country and return with illegal drugs that the feds made sure never reached their targets.

Undercover cameras installed on Seal’s plane captured photos on the tarmac of a Nicaraguan airport. Images showed Pablo Escobar with Sandinista government officials and soldiers, who were loading cocaine onto Seal’s plane. The idea that such an operation would begin with an operative approaching Seal in a bar is farfetched and feels like a clichéd movie idea. In that sense, it would have been nice to see the movie take a more original approach to such a scene instead of redoing the kind of moment that has been seen countless times in other spy movies.

3 The Plane Crash Incident Was Dramatized

The Crash-landing Scene Never Happened In Real Life

Tom Cruise with his arms crossed as Barry Seal in American Made.

In Tom Cruise’s American Made, Barry Seal crash-lands a plane in a suburban neighborhood while escaping the DEA, who ordered him to land. Barry emerges from the plane covered in cocaine. Seal hands wads of cash to a kid on a bike, telling the boy, “You never saw me.” There’s no evidence that anything similar to this memorable scene ever happened in real life. Tom Cruise has always been known for performing his own stunts in intense action sequences, and American Made was no exception, which explains this moment’s inclusion in the film.

It is not hard to view this moment and conclude that it is a fabrication as it seems too wild and Hollywood-esque to be true. It is also a moment that shows the movie’s juggling of its tone. Seeing Cruise covered in cocaine and bribing a kid is a funny image for the usually very heroic actor. Wisely, the movie doesn’t lean into over-the-top moments like this too much and Cruise’s grounded performance for most of the movie makes this an effective comedic sequence.

2 Seal Was Fired When TWA Learned About His Weapon Trafficking

Seal Falsely Cited Medical Leave To Explain His Absences

Barry Seal and Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in American Made.

Barry Seal did not quit his job at Trans World Airlines (TWA) out of boredom, choosing to live life on the edge as American Made reveals. In 1974, Seal was fired for falsely citing medical leave when he was actually trafficking weapons. He had been arrested in 1972 by the U.S. Customs Service for trying to fly 1,350 pounds of plastic explosives to anti-Castro Cubans via Mexico, according to Del Hahn’s book Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal.

Once again, this is a change in the character that makes him something closer to Tom Cruise’s usual dashing heroes and further away from the problematic real-life figure that he was. The idea that Seal just wanted more excitement in his life positions him to be a character like Maverick in Top Gun who is just chasing thrills. It is less endearing to consider that he was smuggling and profiting off of wars.

1 The Zero-Gravity Love Scene Never Happened

Director Doug Liman Was Inspired By His Own Real-life Flight

Barry (Tom Cruise) and Lucy (Sarah Wright) kissing in American Made

The famous American Made love scene with Barry Seal and his wife is a memorable moment in the movie. The moment comes as Barry and Lucy are flying in his plane and decide to have sex. Getting carried away with the intimate moment, the plane begins to dive only for Barry to pull out, creating a brief moment of zero-gravity in the plane while the couple still have sex. As many might expect, the moment was created by the filmmakers themselves.

Director Doug Liman told Vulture that when preparing for American Made with Cruise, he got the inspiration to create the fictional scene:

“He put the airplane into a parabolic arc and pinned me against the ceiling, and right at that moment, I had this inspiration. … Wouldn’t it be fun if they were fooling around in a plane and the plane went into the same kind of parabolic arc, and they got pinned against the ceiling?”

The moment doesn’t play out as if it is something the audience needs to believe really happened. It is simply a funny moment that offers something the audience likely hasn’t seen before. Liman also shoots it in a way that ensures it does not come off as goofy. Interestingly, Liman and Cruise have been working on a future collaboration that would see them shooting the first-ever movie in space, giving plenty of opportunities for zero-gravity moments.

Sources: TIME, Vulture,Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal

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Based on the life of Baton Rouge pilot Barry Seal, American Made centers on Barry, who works as a drug runner for the CIA in an operation known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The film is based in the ’80s and stars Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sara Wright, and Jesse Plemons.

Director Doug Liman Cast Tom Cruise , Domhnall Gleeson , Sarah Wright , Caleb Landry Jones , Jesse Plemons Runtime 115 Minutes

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