Tom Cruise is back in theaters this weekend with American Made, a biopic about the life of Barry Seal. Like many other modern biopic subjects, Seal’s story is filled with enough twists and turns that he was perfect for the subject of a movie.
In the film, directed by Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow), Cruise depicts Seal as a hot-shot pilot bored by his life as a commercial airline pilot. He’s contacted by a CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson), who asks him to become a courier between the CIA and Panama’s General Manuel Noriega. In the middle of one of these missions, members of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel pick him up and tell him to smuggle cocaine with him on return trips to the U.S. The CIA let him do this, but the DEA is on his trail. So the CIA moved him and his family to Mena, Arkansas.
Although some of the facts are fudged in the film to make it a smooth, two-hour movie, American Made has earned strong reviews. Here’s a look at the true story behind American Made.
1. Seal’s Real Long-Term Relationship With the CIA Remains an Unconfirmed Rumor
Seal was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 16, 1939. As a teen, he showed great skill as a pilot, even earning his regular pilot’s license at age 16, according to Smuggler’s End: The Life And Death of Barry Seal by retired FBI agent Del Hahn. Seal served in the Louisiana Army National Guard for six years. He graduated from the U.S. Army Airborne School.
After serving in the National Guard, Seal joined TWA in 1967. His career there ended five years later in 1972 when he was arrested for smuggling plastic explosives to Mexico. Although that case was dismissed two years later, he was still out of a job.
Meanwhile, as Time Magazine notes, Seal was getting noticed by the government for his smuggling of Cuban cigars. He moved on to smuggling marijuana, and then cocaine.
Although the film portrays Seal as having a long relationship with the CIA, it’s still not clear if this was anything more than a rumor. Hahn found that there were rumors he was working with the CIA before 1984. However, the only confirmation of a link was in 1984, after Seal was working as an informant for the DEA, Hahn discovered.
In this case, the CIA had a hidden camera on Seal’s plane during a trip to pick up cocaine in Colombia. They took photos that linked the Nicaraguan Sandinistas government to the Medellín Cartel. But the cocaine shipment to Florida was never completed, which caused the cartel to think Seal had something to do with it.
2. Seal’s Cover Was Blown by a Washington Times Report That Detailed Seal’s Work in Nicaragua
Seal’s cover was blown when the Washington Times published a story in July 1984 about his infiltration into the Medellin Cartel in Panama. As PBS notes, the story was leaked by Oliver North to prove that the Nicaraguan government was involved in the drug trade. North remains a controversial figure for his role in the Iran-Contra Affair. He was convicted of his role in that plot to sell weapons to Iran and use the proceeds to support rebels in Nicaragua based on the Boland Amendment, but the convictions were vacated in 1991.
As Slate notes, Seal’s cover is blown in the film when North releases the pictures before Escobar and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez are arrested. But in real life, Seal’s cover was blown before the photos came out thanks to the Times article.
In an interview with PBS, North refused to take blame for leaking the details of Seal’s work, which clashed with the work he was doing for the DEA. North told PBS:
I think the allegation is unfair. I think it’s based on erroneous reporting and God only knows how many sources. I never briefed anybody on Capitol Hill, I never talked to a reporter unless I was ordered to do so. That’s number one. Number two. When you’re told to go brief a United States senator on a covert operation, you go do it. And you trust the information isn’t going to leak. But hell, I wasn’t the only one who briefed U.S. senators on stuff that leaked. The people who are concerned ought not to point the finger at me. They ought to start pointing the finger at the president of the United States and the chief of staff of the White House and the people in the political directorate and everywhere else, that when congressmen and senators start screaming for information, the White House frequently goes and briefs on it.
North said he also didn’t blame then-DEA chief Jack Lawn for being frustrated about Seal’s cover being blown.
3. Seal Didn’t Really Meet Pablo Escobar & the Ochoa Brothers Until Later on in His Operations
Seal’s early meetings with Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers in American Made are works of fiction. As Time notes, he didn’t work with them directly until they met in 1984 during a DEA sting operation. That’s the operation that went badly because Seal’s cover was blown.
DEA Agent Ernst Jacobsen said in Congressional testimony the DEA operation started in early 1984 after Seal said he could help them nab the Medellin Cartel leadership and seize 6,600 pounds of cocaine in the process. In the middle of the trip, they’d have to stop in Nicaragua for refueling. When the CIA heard this, they wanted to get in on it, hiding a camera on Seal’s plane to catch photos and confirmed the Nicaragua-Medellin link, Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime that Seal learned that the CIA wanted to leak the photos to the media, but the DEA tried and failed to stop them. “We were in the middle of the most significant investigation of my career. We had a chance to arrest all the cartel members,” Jacobsen said.
“Seal was such a flamboyant character, he even appeared in a T.V. documentary,” Jacobsen told PBS. “But the cartel knew surprisingly little about their star pilot. Seal always used pay phones and beepers and never gave them his real name. Escobar and his associates simply knew him as El Gordo, ‘the fat man,’ and this is why the cartel did not know that Seal had finally been arrested and, rather than serve a long prison sentence, he had agreed to become an informant for the U.S. government.”
4. Seal Was Really Married 3 Times & the Father of 5 Children
Another fictional element in the film is Seal’s wife Lucy, played by Sarah Wright. In reality, Seal was married three times and had five children.
Seal’s first wife was Barbara Bottoms, and they had a son and a daughter. They married in 1963. After their divorce in 1971, Seal was married to Linda McGarrh Ross in 1971 and 1972. His third wife was Deborah Ann DuBois, whom he married in 1974 and had three children with.
In October 2015, Seal’s eldest daughter Lisa Seal Frigon filed a lawsuit to stop Universal from making American Made. The Advocate reports that Frigon argued that DuBois and her children with Seal sold the rights to Seal’s life without the consent of his estate or his first two children. WBRZ reports that the lawsuit is in appeals, and it didn’t stop the movie from being made.
5. Seal Was Assassinated by Medellin-Hired Killers in 1986 at Age 46
After Seal’s cover was blown, he was arrested in December 1984 for smuggling marijuana in Baton Rouge. As Slate notes, Seal stuck a plea deal, where he testified in three major drug trials and got five years’ probation and six months at a halfway house.
In February 1986, Seal was killed outside the Salvation Army halfway house. Three men hired by Ochoa and the Medellin Cartel were convicted in Seal’s murder. The New York Times reported in 1987 that court documents showed there was a $500,000 contract out on the death of Seal, or $1 million if he could be caught alive and taken to Colombia. Federal prosecutors also claimed that Seal was offered to join the witness protection program, but declined to do so.
The men convicted were Luis Carlos Quintero-Cruz, Miguel Velez and Bernado Antonio Alvarez. They were sentenced to life without parole.
"Barry Seal, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was probably the most successful smuggler in his time," Jacobsen told PBS. “He had smuggled approximately 50 loads of cocaine into the United States. He made $1 million per trip, which was paid by Escobar and the Ochoas.”