They’re four of the vaguest words in Hollywood, but four of the most frequently used: “based on real events.” Sometimes a movie will use their equally vague cousin, “inspired by real events,” but the upshot is pretty much the same. Basically: Don’t believe what you’re about to see, because you never know how much is real and how much is completely made up.
After all, how can you trust a movie that starts with those four words but then ends with the standard closing credits disclaimer, “The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental”?
Case in point: “American Made,” the comedy-laced crime drama that is “based on” the real-life story of Barry Seal, a Baton Rouge pilot-turned-smuggler-turned-federal-informant whose larger-than-life story is almost too incredible to believe. That, in fact, is probably the only reason Hollywood hasn’t turned it into a movie — outside of a 1991 TV movie starring Dennis Hopper — until now.
That doesn’t stop director Doug Liman and actor Tom Cruise from trying, though, and the results are decidedly entertaining. A cocaine-fueled, 1980s-set romp that hums along on its own self-satisfied charm, it plays like a lightweight blend of “Goodfellas” and “Argo.”
Key to it all is the endearing roguishness of Seal, an incorrigible hustler — both on-screen and in real life — who was driven as much by a love of adventure as by the promises of riches. Cruise seems to be having a ball playing him, which makes the whole exercise that much more enjoyable.
The nutshell version of the real Seal’s story: Adler Berriman Seal was a commercial airline pilot who, after losing his job with TWA upon being caught smuggling explosives for what is believed to have been an anti-Castro group, turned to drug smuggling. He was eventually approached by the CIA to work secretly for them and — in addition to making a boatload of money ferrying cocaine into the United States from South America for the Medellin drug cartel — would become a key player in the Iran-contra affair as well as a federal informant.
What’s more, Seal made no apologies about it. “Whether you call it soldier of fortune or what, it’s a way of life for me,” he once said in a TV interview. “I enjoy it and I’m going to keep doing it.”
Your first red flag that Liman doesn’t intend to adhere slavishly to the “real events” upon which his film claims to be based is the involvement of Cruise, whose 5-foot-7 frame — even after he reportedly put on weight for the role — doesn’t come even close to casting the same shadow of the pot-bellied Seal, who weighed in at a reported 300 pounds.
Liman himself has called the film “a fun lie based on a true story,” so at least he’s honest about his fast-and-looseness — although Seal had such a larger-than-life personality and his exploits were so over-the-top that they probably didn’t really need embellishment. But then, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, so embellished they are.
In this case, I suppose Liman and company decided that fiction is stranger than truth.
Long story short: Barry Seal was real, and the basic details of much of “American Made” are at least rooted in fact. But at least as much — including whole characters, such as Domhnall Gleeson’s colorful CIA agent character — are pure Hollywood poppycock.
All that being said, it’s pretty fun poppycock, as long as you don’t let your knowledge of the historical record get in the way of your good time.
Similarly, you won’t want to think too much about the morality of Seal’s deeds. “American Made” holds him up as a sort of working-class hero, a loving but wild family man who figures out a way to build a fortune on his own system-defying terms. But in reality, although he was likeable, Seal was also a criminal, and one involved in activities that cost people their lives.
For his part, Liman does his best to keep his audience from asking those questions, keeping his movie zipping along at a nice pace, never leaving much time for people to delve too far below the surface. There’s something to be said for that, I suppose.
There’s also something to be said about the film’s period flourishes, which convincingly re-create the late 1970s and early 1980s, from the costumes to the set decoration to the wealth of pay phones the production had to unearth for Cruise’s Seal to communicate covertly and securely.
That last point is vital to the story because the real Seal was so fond of communicating by pay phones that it is said he carried around a camera bag filled with quarters.
Or did he? At this point, the lines between fact and fiction have become so blurred when it comes to Seal that it’s anybody’s guess.
Best just to sit back and enjoy the ride and don’t ask too many questions.
3 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: Three years after the sci-fi thriller “Edge of Tomorrow,” director Doug Liman and actor Tom Cruise reunite for a drama inspired by the real-life story of pilot-turned-smuggler-turned-informant Barry Seal. Originally titled “Mena,” it shot briefly in Louisiana — which is where Seal was from — with production taking place mostly in Georgia and Colombia.
What works: It’s nothing if not fun, a fast-paced romp that, while it has no qualms about embellishing the truth, never takes itself too seriously.
What doesn’t: Those looking for a factual historical record of Seal’s exploits will be left disappointed. Similarly, those who think too much about the story at hand will be troubled by the way it glorifies a man who — while colorful — was also a criminal.
Cast: Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke. Director: Liman. MPAA rating: R, for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. Where: Find New Orleans showtimes.