Features and Columns · Movies

Watch ‘American Made,’ Then Watch These Movies

Whether for additional context or to complete the Escobar Cinematic Universe, these picks will add to your appreciation of Doug Liman’s latest.
Tom Cruise Doug Liman American Made
By  · Published on September 30th, 2017

Anytime a movie is based on major historical events, there are going to be a lot of other films to recommend as pieces in a cinematic universe of true stories. American Made depicts a biography set in the background of the cocaine trade and the CIA’s support of Nicaraguan contras. One of its characters being Pablo Escobar (played by Mauricio Mejia) means it can link to plenty of feature films, documentaries, and TV series such as Netflix’s Narcos.

And its protagonist, Barry Seal (played by Tom Cruise), has already been the focus of the TV movie Doublecrossed, in which he’s portrayed by Dennis Hopper (I recommended this as a movie to watch beforehand), and was a minor character in last year’s The Infiltrator, played by Michael Paré. There are so many suggestions to make for post-American Made viewing, and so honorable mentions galore can be found among this week’s eight picks.

Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)

Let’s begin with something silly but substantial. When most people think of Ronald Reagan’s acting career, they think of the movie with the chimpanzee (many others think of his role as “the Gipper” in Knute Rockne, All American, but nothing’s more memorable than simian cinema). It’s the only one referenced by name among the Reagan movie clips in American Made, and it’s the one most representative of the disconnect between his performances in Hollywood and his performances in politics.

While mostly recommended because it’s featured in the movie at hand, it is so featured for a reason as an introduction to the man whose presidency would change Barry Seal’s life for better and for worse. There aren’t many other Reagan-led films that are must-sees for the context of that earlier career (Dark Victory and The Killers are great films he appears in, however). But I do encourage following it with more Reagan biopics and documentaries, including 2003’s The Reagans and 2011’s Reagan.

Bananas (1971)

BananaswoodyAmerican Made has a lot more humor than I expected, calling to mind one of Woody Allen’s funniest early films. Bananas stars the filmmaker as an American who, like Seal, is unhappy with his job before winding up mixed up in too much Latin America-based adventure for his own good. While Seal’s real-life track was focused on drug trafficking and gun running plus a bit of rebel group training, Allen’s protagonist is primarily involved with a rebel army in a fictionalized “banana republic.”

Movies dealing with revolutionaries in Latin America go back much further than the era of CIA interference, with the 1923 Harold Lloyd silent comedy Why Worry? and the 1940 James Cagney vehicle Torrid Zone being two worthy examples. Later, about the time of  American Made‘s initial setting, there’s the 1979 comedy The In-Laws, which does deal with the CIA and a man brought in way over his head through Central American shenanigans. Nothing, though, tops the Howard Cosell-commentated coup at the start of Allen’s Bananas.

Scarface (1983)

One of my favorite comparisons made in a review of American Made is Drew McWeeny’s description of the movie as “Forrest Gump if Oliver Stone directed it.” I guess I should have both Gump and maybe the Cruise-led Stone film Born on the Fourth of July on this list, but instead I’ll skip the former ingredient and skew the latter reference toward recommending a movie scripted by Stone instead. Not that Scarface is hard up for recognition these days.

Brian DePalma’s remake of the 1932 gangster film classic is very much of its time, starting off with events tied to an actual mass migration of Cubans to America fleeing communist rule and leading into the topical issue of cocaine trafficking. We can imagine that Al Pacino’s Tony Montana is dealing drugs brought into Miami by the Contras who get the shipments from Colombia via Barry Seal. Had it not been a fiction, maybe Escobar would have been the movie’s South American kingpin character.

Stone would of course go on to direct his own movies involving subject matter relevant to American Made, from the true story-based Salvador to JFK (conspiracy theorists believe Seal was involved with the assassination as a getaway pilot) to his documentaries on Latin American leaders. I also am one of the few critics who recommend the underrated near-masterpiece Savages, which deals with marijuana and a Mexican drug cartel but similarly involves initially smalltime characters in way over their head.

Blow (2001)

Tumblr MdadezairxxruroI thought about including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas on this list, partly because it’s been another major point of comparison for American Made reviews. And it does have that fourth-wall-breaking true story with flair sensibility that likely influenced Doug Liman’s new movie, as it has most of these kinds of crime films. But you’ve all seen it already, right? Another Goodfellas-like (or Goodfellas light) feature that has more relevance is this final narrative effort from the late Ted Demme.

Blow stars Johnny Depp as George Jung, another notorious American who became extremely wealthy (similarly having too much cash to know what to do with) by penetrating the Medellin cartel and becoming one of its biggest cocaine smugglers. Jung and Seal’s stories never intertwined as far as I know — not between their two movies, at least — as the former worked with Escobar in the ’70s prior to the latter’s involvement. Their biopics have that overlap of Escobar, though, and Carlos Ledher, who is renamed “Diego Delgado” in Blow (played by Jordi Molla there, by Fredy Yate Escobar in American Made).  Jung and Seal are basically individual antiheroes to Escobar’s Nick Fury in the Medellin Cinematic Universe.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

The way American Made sets up its story, with Seal seemingly out of the blue being recruited by CIA (via Domhnall Gleason’s character), reminds me of this adaptation of Chuck Barris’s memoir and his purported own intelligence work. Barris, played by Sam Rockwell, claimed to have been approached by the CIA (via director/co-star George Clooney’s character), and like Seal it was at a bar. The big difference between the two figures is Barris supposedly worked as an American assassin.

Seal’s situation, never mind that it’s backed up as not just a true story but outright historical fact, is much more plausible (though the conspiracy theories of his early years make it even more believable), yet the farfetched aspects of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind are what makes it so much fun (and certainly appealing to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman). Barris, of course, became famous totally separate from his CIA work, as a songwriter and game show host, while Seal became famous because of his CIA work.

Maria Full of Grace (2004)

While movies like Blow and American Made sort of glamorize the big deal drug smugglers, this is a very different, much bleaker depiction of cocaine transport from Colombia to the US. Catalina Sandino Moreno earned an Oscar for her performance as a 17-year-old drug mule in the unforgettable drama. Does she get rich flying many kilos in a private plane? No, she swallows 62 cocaine pellets, braving both the chance of them opening up in her stomach and killing her (and her unborn baby) and the risk of being caught by customs authorities.

Far more individuals share this story of the drug trade than relate to Jung and Seal types. And many don’t even get as far as Sandino Moreno’s character, Maria. Either they attempt the journey and overdose from a leaked pellet — something depicted quite horrifyingly in this movie — or they’re imprisoned in their home or neighboring nation for doing a less dangerous yet more seductive and commonplace job. There’s a new documentary called Cocaine Prison that presents the unfortunate reality of an overcrowded prison in Bolivia (location of Scarface‘s cartel) mostly filled with poor, low-level cocaine mules.

American Gangster (2007)

While most of the movies on this list involve the smuggling of cocaine, like American Made, this other American-titled movie presents a parallel scenario with the trade of heroin. Denzel Washington portrays infamous Harlem gangster Frank Lucas, who transported the drug from Thailand to the US via secret compartments in coffins carrying servicemen who died in the Vietnam War. The fictionalized biopic, directed by Ridley Scott, also stars Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the detective who took Lucas down, and Ruby Dee in a wonderful Oscar-nominated performance as Lucas’s mama.

Of  course, from there you want to also check out Mr. Untouchable, Marc Levin’s documentary released the same year about Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, Nicky Barnes. Also The French Connection, which is referenced directly in American Gangster and indirectly with its opening being loosely tied to the end of the 1971 Best Picture winner.

Although Lucas isn’t connected to the cocaine trade, he and Barnes are considered among the most significant drug lords of all time, alongside Escobar, Manuel Noriega (who has also had biopics, including one strangely starring Bob Hoskins), and “Freeway” Rick Ross, subject of Levin’s 2015 documentary Freeway: Crack in the System and portrayed by Michael K. Williams in the 2014 movie Kill the Messenger, about Gary Webb, the journalist who uncovered the CIA’s involvement in the import and trade of cocaine to fund the Contras.

Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded (2014)

I’ve been recommending documentaries throughout this column, but this is the official obligatory doc of the week. Director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman’s Cocaine Cowboys films are essential if you’re interested in more stories like and tied to the one in American Made. In fact, Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded reworks the 2006 original so it covers more material, including stuff on Seal and his assassination — Corben actually tried to interview “Cumbamba,” one of the hitmen responsible for Seal’s death but was turned down.

For the most part, though, the docs are focused on Miami and the effect the drug trade had on its growth — basically what Seal is credited with aiding via his running cocaine through Nicaragua to the Florida city. Another figure Corben and Spellman tried to get for the doc was Max Mermelstein, a drug smuggler who like Seal turned informant but unlike Seal had actually truly infiltrated the Escobar circle (Mermelstein’s memoir, “The Man Who Made it Snow,” is also being turned into a movie). But his and Seal’s joint associate, the late trafficker Jon Peters, is a major part of Cocaine Cowboys and the Reloaded update, which also tells of Mermelstein’s story. Mickey Munday, a pilot and drug smuggler similar to Seal, is also interviewed.

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.