The Tom Cruise Crime Thriller On Netflix Based On A Real CIA Operation

By Zack Zagranis | Updated

tom cruise

If you like your action films with more of a real-world spin nothing beats 2017’s American Made. The Tom Cruise-led film is based on a real pilot who flew missions for the CIA before turning to drug smuggling. American Made is streaming on Netflix right now, making it the perfect movie to throw on if you need an action-crime fix.

The movie is based on real-life former TWA pilot Barry Seal. Seal is best known as—among other things—a drug smuggler for the infamous Medellin Cartel. At the peak of Seal’s success as a smuggler, he was being paid up to $500,000 per flight to transport cocaine from Colombia to the US. Tom Cruise portrays Barry Seal in American Made.

American Made, starring Tom Cruise as real-life former drug smuggler Barry Seal, is streaming on Netflix.

The film is a semi-fictionalized account of Seal’s misdeeds as well as his complete 180-degree turn to working for the US government. The plot follows Tom Cruise as Seal, a TWA pilot making some cash on the side smuggling Cuban cigars into the US by flying through Canada. A CIA agent named Monty Schafer (The Last Jedi‘s Domhnall Gleeson) recruits Seal to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions for the agency over Central America.

After a few years of flying successful missions for the CIA, Tom Cruise as Seal is asked to act as a courier between the CIA and General Noriega in Panama. During one of his courier missions, Seal is apprehended by the Medellin Cartel, who asks the pilot if he wouldn’t mind flying cocaine into the United States on his way back from his CIA trips.

tom cruise
American Made (2017)

The CIA turns a blind eye to Seal’s double dipping, but one of the US’s other alphabet agencies, the DEA, does not.

What follows is a tangled web of intrigue involving the CIA, the DEA, the drug cartels, the FBI, and even the Iran-Contra scandal.

Director Doug Liman calls American Made “a fun lie based on a true story.”

The genesis of the idea for American Made came from screenwriter Gary Spinelli in 2013. Spinelli was looking for a project based on real events, “little pieces of history,” as the writer put it once. Spinelli admitted that Goodfellas was a very big inspiration for American Made—with Barry Seal functioning as Spinelli’s version of Henry Hill.

The writer originally titled the film Mena, and in 2014, the screenplay for what would eventually become American Made was featured on Hollywood’s Black List, an unofficial survey showcasing the best-unproduced screenplays currently floating around Hollywood.

Tom Cruise… purposely crashed four different planes in preparation for a scene in American Made in which he was required to crash a fifth plane on camera.

The following year, Tom Cruise and Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman signed on to make American Made, the first time the two had collaborated since the 2014 time-loop sci-fi film. In addition to Cruise, the film’s cast features Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, and Jayma Mays, along with the previously mentioned Domnhall Gleeson. With the cast in place, principal photography on American Made began on May 18, 2015, in Atlanta, Georgia.

tom cruise
American Made (2017)

From there, filming continued on location in Medellin, Colombia. Sadly, on the last day of filming in Colombia, the crew was met with tragedy. On September 11, 2015, two pilots, Alan D. Purwin and Carlos Berl, were killed in a plane crash caused by foggy conditions. Another person aboard the plane, Jimmy Lee Garland, survived the crash but suffered serious injury.

Meanwhile, accomplished pilot Tom Cruise—who insisted on doing all of his own flying in the film—purposely crashed four different planes in preparation for a scene in American Made in which he was required to crash a fifth plane on camera.

These planned, controlled crashes were insisted upon by Cruise so that he would know what crashing a plane felt like—a sensation that was apparently too foreign to the Mission Impossible actor to simply fake like hundreds of actors before him.

American Made (2017)

American Made was released in Europe on August 23, 2017, and in the United States over a month later on September 29. The Tom Cruise action-crime-thriller grossed $134.9 million against a budget of $50 million, making a fair profit during its theatrical run. The movie was received well both critically and by audiences, earning an 85% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 79 percent audience score.

As far as the movie’s historical accuracy, director Doug Liman sums it up best as “a fun lie based on a true story.” Whether you’re a fan of Tom Cruise or just hungry for an epic story of one man’s journey from legitimate commercial pilot to drug smuggler and government agent, American Made is a fun way to kill a couple of hours that won’t have you reaching for your phone every five minutes. American Made is currently available to stream on Netflix.