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American Made: Movie Review

American Made released in August 2017, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Doug Liman, is a black-comedy-thriller about a pilot who gets mixed up with the CIA and drug-smuggling, against the background of US attempts to destabilise Nicaragua.

American Made: Title

The title is figurative. America made the protagonist into what he is. America made the war in Nicaragua. The drugs are made in America. Take your pick. This find of figurative allusion is a classic title archetype.

(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)

American Made: Logline

When the CIA ask a pilot to fly clandestine missions in South America for them, he soon realises it’s an ideal cover for smuggling drugs into the USA. He has to play the CIA, drug cartels, law enforcement and even the White House off against each other to keep his operation running.

(For how to write a logline, see The Killogator Logline Formula)

American Made: Plot Summary

Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.

It’s the late 1970s. Barry Seal is a pilot for commercial airline TWA. When ‘Schaffer’, a CIA agent, contacts him and offers him work flying clandestine reconnaissance over South America, Seal jumps at the chance. Schaffer purchases Seal a small plane with cameras installed and sets him up as an ‘independent aviation consultant’. Seal loves the more exciting flying, revelling in the danger.

Schaffer then asks Seal to act as a bag-man – taking money to and collecting intelligence from Panama. On one such run, a Columbian cocaine trafficking cartel picks Seal up and offers him huge amounts of money to fly cocaine on his return flights to the USA. Seal accepts and sets up a smuggling organisation flying the cartel’s cocaine to Louisiana.

Schaffer turns a blind eye to the drug smuggling. Eventually though, the Drug Enforcement Agency tracks Seal down. Schaffer warns Seal, who moves to a remote town in Arkansas called Mena.

The Contras

Meanwhile, the left-wing Sandinista movement has taken power in Nicaragua. This does not suit the USA’s foreign policy, so they create a terrorist organisation called the Contras, hoping to destabilise Nicaragua.

Schaffer asks Seal to run guns to the Contras. He does this, but quickly realises that the Contras have no interest in the guns he’s delivering, or in overthrowing the Sandinistas, so he comes up with another plan. He delivers the guns from the USA to the Cartel, flies the Cartel’s cocaine to the Contras (who smuggle it into the USA) and flies Contra soldiers back to the USA for military training.

The CIA set up a Contra training base in Mena, but most of the Contras just take their opportunity to immigrate to the USA and disappear. Eventually, the CIA becomes disillusioned with the programme, shuts it down and abandons Seal. As soon as the CIA stops protecting Seal, he’s arrested. This time, though, he cuts a deal with the White House itself…

The ‘War on Drugs’

The White House [blackout]wants evidence the Sandinistas are drug traffickers. That’s difficult, as the Contras are the ones actually working with the Cartel to smuggle drugs. Despite this, the White House asks Seal to get photos that tie the Cartel to the Sandinistas.[/blackout]

Seal [blackout]gets pictures that, taken out of context, can implicate the Sandinistas as working with the Cartel. But the White House just releases the photos as propaganda against the Sandinistas. Unsurprisingly, the Cartel now wants Seal dead. Also, as Seal is in the publicly released pictures, he’s arrested again.[/blackout]

Seal [blackout]is convicted and given community service. Because of this, he has to report to the same Salvation Army hostel each night. Eventually, assassins catch up with him and kill him. Schaffer then seizes all the evidence Seal has accumulated that implicates the CIA in drug smuggling.[/blackout]

(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)

American Made: Analysis

Tom Cruise in American Made Movie Review

As Entertainment

Judged purely as an example of the filmmaker’s art, American Made is excellent. Tom Cruise is well-suited to the part of Barry Seal. The screenplay is excellent, making a complicated and exposition-heavy story flow smoothly. It’s entertaining, amusing and gripping in equal measure, and the effects and stunts are nicely handled.

The issues I have with the movie are not based on its film-making but on its roots in reality.

True Story

American Made is very loosely based on the real life-story of CIA pilot Barry Seal. And I mean very loosely.

Amongst the things glossed-over:

  • Seal had likely been working for the CIA since the sixties.
  • The real Barry Seal was not the happy-go-lucky charmer played by Cruise, but an overweight cocaine addict, described as arrogant and boastful by his associates.
  • The Mena operation was much bigger than shown in the movie – it brought billions of dollars worth of drugs into the USA. It had far more planes and employees than the handful shown.
  • Seal probably wasn’t duping the CIA or the Cartel. What was actually going on was a guns-for-drugs deal. The CIA supplied the Contras with guns bought using the drug-smuggling profits.
  • The DEA had been in on the deal for a long time.
  • Several other court cases involved Seal.
  • Reagan’s TV address [blackout]that showed the photos of Seal with the Cartel was after his death, not before.[/blackout]
  • The USA [blackout]is at least as likely to have murdered Seal as the Cartel.[/blackout]


To me, it’s questionable to make a story about a real-life drug smuggler and then make it into a comedy.

In reality, almost all the characters in American Made were evil people, ruining people’s lives. The CIA’s actions in South America, particularly in Nicaragua, were unconscionable – amongst the worst stains on its record. The Contras were vicious terrorists who murdered thousands of people. The White House was acting in violation of international law and even of its own laws in supporting them. Hundreds of thousands of people have died or had their lives destroyed in the drug wars.

I guess you can see American Made as a black comedy in the tradition of Breaking Bad, which also barely showed the appalling consequences of drug trafficking. That’s true to an extent, but Breaking Bad depicts the slow descent of a normal man into evil. American Made, in contrast, plays it for laughs, as if it was all just harmless japes and fun. There’s no attempt to show the dark consequences of the USA’s actions.

At one point in American Made, Schaffer says: “It’s not illegal if the good guys do it”, and that’s even the tagline on the posters.

The thing is when ‘good guys’ do evil things, they aren’t the good guys anymore.

American Made: My Verdict

A very entertaining, if inaccurate, black comedy.

Want to Watch It?

Here’s the trailer:

American Made is available on Amazon USA here and Amazon UK here.

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