American Made (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Doug Liman|
|Written by||Gary Spinelli|
|Music by||Christophe Beck|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$134.9 million|
American Made is a 2017 American action crime film directed by Doug Liman, written by Gary Spinelli, and starring Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda, Mauricio Mejía, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jesse Plemons. It is inspired by the life of Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who flew missions for the CIA, and became a drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s. In order to avoid jail time, Seal became an informant for the DEA.
The film was first released in Taiwan on August 18, 2017, and then in the United States on September 29, 2017. It is the first film directed by Liman to be released by Universal Pictures since The Bourne Identity in 2002, and played in 2D and IMAX in select theaters. It grossed $134 million worldwide against a budget of around $50 million and received generally positive reviews from critics, who praised Cruise's performance.
In 1978, Baton Rouge pilot Barry Seal, who flies commercial jets for TWA, is recruited by a CIA case officer calling himself Monty Schafer. He asks Seal, who has been smuggling Cuban cigars into the country via Canada, to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions for the CIA over Central America using a small plane with cameras installed. At first Seal's wife Lucy thinks he's still with TWA, but eventually she is excited by the wealth generated by his "new company".
Later in the 1980s, Schafer asks Seal to start acting as a courier between the CIA and General Noriega in Panama. During a mission, the Medellín Cartel picks Seal up and asks him to fly cocaine on his return flights to the United States. Seal accepts and starts flying the cartel's cocaine to Louisiana, delivering the drugs via airdrop in the countryside instead of landing at an airport. The CIA turns a blind eye to the drug smuggling, but the DEA tracks Seal down. To avoid the authorities, Schafer moves Seal and his family to the remote town of Mena, Arkansas, which slowly becomes the hub of all U.S. cocaine trafficking.
Later, Schafer asks Seal to run guns to the Nicaraguan Contras based in Honduras. Seal soon realizes that the Contras are not serious about the war and just want to get rich and he starts trading the guns to the cartel. The CIA sets up a Contra training base in Mena and Seal flies the Contras in, but many of them escape as soon as they arrive.
Seal makes so much money he buries it in suitcases in the backyard. Seal's freeloading brother-in-law JB moves in, needing a job. Eventually, he starts stealing money from the Seals and is arrested after Sheriff Downing catches him with a briefcase full of laundered cash. With JB out on bail, Seal gives him money and a plane ticket to Bora Bora and tells him to get lost for his own safety. JB demands weekly cash and insults Lucy. Barry chases after him but JB's car explodes in a fireball; the cartel of Jorge Ochoa isn't taking any chances.
Eventually, the CIA shuts the program down and abandons Seal, who is arrested by the FBI, DEA, ATF and Arkansas State Police simultaneously. Seal escapes prosecution by making a deal with the White House, which wants evidence of the Sandinistas being drug traffickers. They ask Seal to get photos that tie the Medellín Cartel to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Seal manages to get the pictures, but the White House releases them as propaganda against the Sandinistas. Seal is prominently shown in the pictures, which leads to his arrest, and to the cartel plotting revenge.
Seal is convicted but given a light sentence, a total of 1,000 hours community service for the Salvation Army. Moving from motel to motel fails as a way of remaining in hiding because the community service is performed at the same building every night. Assassins sent by Pablo Escobar and the cartel easily locate Seal and kill him; the CIA then destroys all documentation and other evidence to avoid being implicated in drug smuggling. Even after Seal is dead and the evidence is destroyed, the CIA still becomes embroiled in the infamous Iran–Contra affair.
- Tom Cruise as Barry Seal
- Domhnall Gleeson as Monty Schafer
- Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal
- Jesse Plemons as Sheriff Joe Downing
- Caleb Landry Jones as JB
- Jayma Mays as Dana Sibota
- Lola Kirke as Judy Downing
In the summer of 2013, screenwriter Gary Spinelli was looking for a project that was based on real events. On the bonus feature of American Made, Spinelli said:
I was looking for little hidden pieces of history. Small stories that affected larger global events and I came across the Mena story. And I always wanted to do a gangster film. Goodfellas is one of my favorite movies and I was always on the hunt to try to find my version of that. And once I started researching CIA's involvement in Mena, the same name kept popping up, was this Barry Seal character. As soon as I found Barry, I knew I had a movie.
Principal photography on the film began on May 27, 2015 in Georgia. Filming locations there include counties Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Morgan and Pickens. On August 20, 2015, Tom Cruise arrived in Medellin, Colombia, and on August 31, in Santa Marta, to scout filming locations for the film.
A plane crash on the set of the film in Colombia on September 11, 2015 killed two people and caused serious injuries to another member of the crew. The plane (a twin-engine Piper Aerostar), which was carrying crew members (three American pilots), was returning to Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellín when it ran into bad weather and the crash occurred. The dead were identified as Carlos Berl and Alan Purwin, who was the founder and president of Helinet Aviation, a company which provides aerial surveillance technology to government agencies and law enforcement, and a film pilot who had worked in top films. American pilot Jimmy Lee Garland was seriously injured and rushed to a local hospital.
In May 2015, Universal set the film for release on January 6, 2017. On August 8, 2016, the film's release was pushed to September 29, 2017, and its title changed from Mena to American Made. It was released in Europe on August 23, 2017, and in the United States on September 29, 2017, and also screened at the Deauville Film Festival on September 1, 2017.
American Made grossed $51.3 million in the United States and Canada, and $83.6 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $134.9 million, against a production budget of $50 million.
In North America, American Made was released alongside the openings of Flatliners and 'Til Death Do Us Part, as well as the wide expansion of Battle of the Sexes, and was projected to gross $12–15 million from 3,023 theaters in its opening weekend. It made $960,000 from Thursday night previews, the lowest total by a Cruise-led film in recent years, and $6.1 million on its first day. Initially, studio estimates had the film opening to $17 million, finishing third at the box office, behind holdovers It ($17.3 million) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle ($17 million). The following day, actual results had the film debuting to $16.8 million, with Kingsman beating out It by a gross of $16.93 million to $16.90 million. 91% of its opening weekend audience was over the age of 25. In its second weekend, the film grossed $8.1 million (a drop of 51%), finishing 6th.
The film was released in 21 countries on August 25, 2017, and grossed a total of $6.1 million over the weekend. It finished number one in 11 of the territories, including the U.K., where it replaced five-time champ Dunkirk.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 86% based on 240 reviews, and an average rating of 7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "American Made's fast-and-loose attitude with its real-life story mirrors the cavalier – and delightfully watchable – energy Tom Cruise gives off in the leading role." On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 65 out of 100, based on 50 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it a 55% "definite recommend".
Despite the film's suggestion that he was recruited by the CIA while working for TWA, Seal denied in court that he had ever worked for the CIA. Monty Schafer was a fictional character and not based on a real-life CIA agent. A 1996 report by the CIA inspector general acknowledged that covert training exercises were conducted at the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, but denied that any illegal drug smuggling took place.
Seal was fired from TWA in 1974 for falsely claiming medical leave when he was involved in a smuggling scheme. Seal's connections with cartel bosses were also not direct when he was running his drug operations, and he did not meet Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers in person until 1984, when he was working as an informant for the DEA on an undercover operation, following his arrest.
His third wife Deborah, whom Lucy was loosely based on, stated that Seal started his drug smuggling business in 1975, not 1980 like the film suggests, and that it was centered around marijuana before it involved cocaine. Seal's DEA record also noted that he expanded to smuggling cocaine in 1978 and claimed that he was smuggling marijuana as early as 1976. Seal's ties to the Medellín Cartel also began not after being kidnapped while refueling his plane in Colombia, but when he met a smuggler who flew for cartel operative Jorge Ochoa during a flight home from Honduras, where he served nine months in a local jail after being caught smuggling drugs in 1979.
When asked by Abraham Riesman of Vulture if the film was a biopic, director Doug Liman said "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." It has been noted the real Seal was not of Tom Cruise's 5-foot-7 frame, and was an obese man who reportedly weighed 300 pounds. Liman has also acknowledged that the film's zero-gravity love scene was his idea, and that he received the inspiration for it after he and Cruise collided in the cockpit while filming a flight scene.
Seal was unapologetic about his weapons and drug smuggling operations, even stating once in a television interview, "Whether you call it soldier of fortune or what, it's a way of life for me. I enjoy it and I'm going to keep doing it." He also never crash-landed into a suburban neighborhood. Liman has described the film as "a fun lie based on a true story."
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