MOVIES/Ed Rampell

Iran-Contra Scandal Gets the Tom Cruise, Hollywood Treatment in ‘American Made’

Doug Liman’s American Made kicks off with news clips and a soundtrack to transport audiences back to the 1980s and the Reagan presidency in this high-flying period piece. Top Gun star Tom Cruise returns to the Wild Blue Yonder and “service” to his country as the real life Barry Seal, a Louisiana-born pilot, supposedly the youngest in TWA airlines history. Though we see the words “based on a true story” early on, the feature film, which takes liberties with the facts, isn’t exactly a Ken Burns documentary, so viewer beware.

Seal is recruited by an opportunistic CIA agent called “Schafer” (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson). Seal’s fate is sealed as he starts flying on covert narcotics and gun trafficking missions for the spy agency. A skilled aviator, the cocky Seal soars south of the border in a CIA-provided private jet, cruising at low altitudes to evade radar, while conducting surveillance and making drug drops. “The Company” also gives Seal secret classified information so he can avoid the Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol, Coast Guard and other US security entities.

As his entanglement escalates, Seal becomes involved with Medellin cartel drug lords Pablo Escobar (Colombia-born actor Mauricio Mejía, who appeared as rightwing paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño in the Netflix’s TV series Narcos) and Jorge Ochoa (Mexico-born Alejandro Edda of the FX crime series The Bridge), as well as with Panama’s General Manuel Noriega. Seal also becomes a key part of Washington’s anti-communist crusade in Central America, especially with the Contras, counterrevolutionary terrorists (who Reagan called “freedom fighters”) trying to topple Nicaragua’s leftwing Sandinista government.

In the process, Seal gets rich beyond his wildest dreams. Although the smug smuggler indulges in conspicuous consumption, at heart the onscreen Seal remains a Baton Rouge good ol’ boy. Seal is depicted as a loving, devoted family man, whose lucrative criminal activities support his wife and three children (albeit with an increasingly luxurious lifestyle).

Making the gun running, money laundering Seal a likable rogue is a crucial function of American Made. The movie employs freeze frames, rapid montage, special effects, hair-raising stunts, as well as great songs by musicians such as George Harrison to create an entertaining star vehicle for Cruise, one of the world’s biggest box office attractions.

Beneath the good fun surface, however, lurks the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked the Reagan regime.

As American Made indicates, after Congress forbade US funding of the Contras, the CIA used extracurricular, clandestine operations to pay for the insurgents’ dirty war in Nicaragua. This is where Seal and his aerial transportation of cocaine, weaponry and Contra combatants come in. While Nancy Reagan is shown in archival footage urging young Americans to “Just say no” to drugs, American Made implicates her husband, his vice president, former CIA chief George H.W. Bush, and other members of the Reagan administration in what would become known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Seal is deeply embroiled. Cruise’s character is even seen traipsing into the White House to meet with covert operator Col. Oliver North (Robert Farrior of the 2008 anti-Iraq War movie Stop-Loss).

American Made is bipartisan in its criticism of US foreign policy, directly implicating then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton in the Contra conspiracy. Tipped off by Schafer, Barry has relocated with his family to Arkansas to avoid an impending bust. There, Seal not only presides over his burgeoning transshipment empire, but also, under the aegis of the CIA, a backwoods Contra commando training base at Mena, Ark.

It’s interesting to note that while Republicans made much hay with Hillary’s emails and the Clinton Foundation during the 2016 presidential race, the Clinton connection to the Contras at Mena was never mentioned by GOP contenders, even though it’s arguably a much bigger scandal. Could this be because publicly tying Governor Clinton to the Contras would lead back to the White House and Ronnie Reagan, who was president during this shameful brouhaha? Perhaps because it would reveal conservatives’ beloved “Gipper” as a mass murderer in Central America, wreaking havoc on innocent civilians and others in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Of course, this is heavy stuff for a reportedly $80 million Hollywood picture, and in order for a big studio like Universal to release it, Gary Spinelli’s script had to be highly entertaining and attached to an extremely bankable superstar. At 55, Tom Cruise retains his boyish looks and charm, and is good, if a bit one-note, as Barry Seal (who, interestingly, was also depicted by Dennis Hopper in 1991’s aptly named docudrama Doublecrossed). Liman also directed Cruise in his 2014 sci fi film Edge of Tomorrow and will reportedly direct Attica, a dramatization of the 1971 state prison revolt in Upstate NY.

While Cruise starred in 1986’s pro-military propaganda Top Gun, he was also superb in Oliver Stone’s 1989 anti-war masterpiece Born on the Fourth of July.

Tinseltown’s formula for dramatizing actual political controversies is to combine an entertaining, plot-driven storyline with history, compelling characters, and star power. From American Made, attuned viewers will learn much about Barry Seal and the Iran-Contra debacle, which connected Washington to Managua to Little Rock to Teheran and beyon


Liman’s film joins a growing canon of productions that dramatize Iran-Contra-related stories, including the 2017 FX TV series Snowfall and 2014 biopic starring Jeremy Renner as investigative reporter Gary Webb, Kill the Messenger. Both revolve around the CIA and the so-called crack cocaine epidemic in American cities, which helped finance the Contras’ bloody reign of terror.

As a new scandal emerges to wrap its tentacles around the standing president, it’s entertaining to revisit the disgraceful undercover actions of the eighties that almost brought down a different commander-in-chief.

The film opened Friday, Sept. 29.

Ed Rampell is a Los Angeles-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist Oct. 27 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (see: This originally appeared at

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2017

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