American Made stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a real-life former airline pilot who embarked on a wildly successful cocaine smuggling operation between Colombia and a tiny airstrip in Mena, Arkansas, in the 1980s. Seal's exploits brought him into close contact with infamous figures like Medellín cartel kingpins Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa and Panama dictator Manuel Noriega — and he was abetted, the film argues, by the CIA and DEA.
The most eyebrow-raising moments in American Made, however, come when Seal crosses paths with two other major historical figures: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
American Made screenwriter Gary Spinelli (Stash House) was interested in the Mena, Arkansas, story as possible fodder for a screenplay, and in his research, he kept coming across Seal. Along with Seal's wildly successful drug smuggling operation, and his subsequent cooperation with the DEA as an informant against the Medellín cartel, Spinelli discovered allegations that Seal was also flying missions for the CIA's campaign to support Contra rebels in Nicaragua — all of which transformed into the Iran-Contra scandal, and dominated President Ronald Reagan's second term.
As is to be expected from purported involvement in clandestine operations, Seal's work with the CIA remains in dispute. But in their interviews with BuzzFeed News, Spinelli and director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) said that they were totally comfortable connecting Seal with the CIA based on the basic deduction that Seal could not have pulled off the massive scale of his drug smuggling operation without outside help. "He was flying in and out of the country, unbeknownst to all law enforcement, and it's pretty improbable that he would be able to do that on his own," said Spinelli.
Seal was murdered in 1986, by Colombian nationals allegedly carrying out a contract on his life — a fact that, coupled with the fuzzy details surrounding his possible collusion with federal intelligence officials, makes him terrific fodder for a different kind of storytelling, and is ultimately what led the filmmakers to include Clinton and Bush in American Made.
"Barry Seal is like a conspiracy theorist magnet for the left and the right," said Liman.
For example, Spinelli said, "one of the big conspiracy theories around Barry is that he was [George] H.W. Bush's personal pilot, and when Barry was killed, he had Bush's phone number in his back pocket."
Neither filmmaker felt it was appropriate to include that unsubstantiated theory, but they also knew that astute audience members might already be familiar with it. Which is how American Made, which opens Sept. 29, ended up with a scene in which Seal is waiting for a meeting at the White House while sitting next to a young George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer) as they exchange small talk about piloting planes.
"I just wanted to put a little fun thing between Barry and George W. Bush to just sort of say, 'We're not ignorant of those allegations,'" said Liman. "'We're not going to put them in the movie, but we're not making this movie in a vacuum, either.'"
Spinelli said that since Seal reportedly did visit the Reagan White House, he was OK with placing him next to Bush, who also regularly visited the White House when his father was vice president. "You know, there's dramatic license there, but both [Seal and Bush] were pilots, and I just thought it would be a cool moment to have [H.W. Bush's] son meet Barry in the hallway," he said. (Representatives for George W. Bush did not respond to a request to comment.)
Seal's connection to Clinton, meanwhile, is even more fraught with conspiracies: Some claim that, as governor of Arkansas, Clinton actively participated with the CIA in smuggling cocaine into the US. Googling Clinton's and Seal's names together produces reams of stories with screaming headlines like "Mena Coverup - Bill & Hillary Clinton's Arkansas Cocaine Operation" and "EXPOSED: Clinton's Trafficked MASSIVE CIA Shipments of Cocaine" and "SNOW JOB: THE CIA, COCAINE, AND BILL CLINTON."
Before American Made went into production, Liman actually cut allegations in Spinelli's original script that the CIA was directly trafficking in cocaine with Seal — in part because, as fate would have it, the chief counsel for the Senate's investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal was Liman's late father, Arthur L. Liman. "My father's deputy said he had looked into those specific allegations and found them so without merit that he didn't even put it in the report to deny it because that gives it some weight," Liman said.
But both Spinelli and Liman understood that, as with the Bush family, they couldn't tell Seal's story and not at least tip their hats to the cottage industry of fringe Clinton conspiracies involving him. So they included a scene in which, after Seal has been arrested by multiple agencies, the attorney general of Arkansas fields a call from then-governor Clinton. Afterwards, Seal is released from custody and immediately whisked away to the White House — the implication being that Clinton had been asked by the Reagan administration to cut Seal loose so he could begin informing for the DEA.
Clinton never appears in the scene — we only know it's him on the phone after the state attorney general calls him "Bill" — but the filmmakers claim that this event, or at least something like it, did happen.
"We knew that somehow Barry was operating with immunity. The CIA was operating with immunity in Arkansas. So there had to have been some involvement of the governor's office," said Liman. "There is a prosecutor in Arkansas who was told to back off. And so we combined that with the fact that the CIA was for sure operating in Arkansas and Clinton was the governor, to condense it down into one specific moment."
In a 1994 press conference, President Clinton was asked specifically about how much he knew about the CIA's alleged operation in Mena, Arkansas. "They didn't tell me anything about it," Clinton said. "The airport in question and all the events in question were the subject of state and federal inquiries. It was primarily a matter for federal jurisdiction. The state really had next to nothing to do with it. … We had nothing — zero — to do with it. And everybody who's ever looked into it knows that." (A representative for Clinton did not respond to a request seeking further comment.)
While both Spinelli and Liman stand by American Made’s assertions, they ultimately set out to make an entertaining movie — and by having Seal narrate his own story, they can couch their narrative in his subjective point of view. "He really is telling you his version of it," said Spinelli. "What the facts are of the record don't matter as much as what Barry thought had happened."
"Nowhere does the film deal with the consequences of Barry's actions," added Liman. "Barry doesn't tell you the part of the story where, say, American inner cities are being decimated by the influx of drugs. That's not part of Barry's narrative. … We're not making a biopic. We're more interested in the mechanics of how an operation like this works, and the kinds of people that get involved. Because it's really fun." Particularly when it potentially involves former presidents.
Thumbnail photo credits: Bettmann / Bettmann Archive; David James / Universal Pictures; Rich Pilling / Getty Images
Adam B. Vary is a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Adam B. Vary at email@example.com.
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