The poster for the movie "American Made," to be released Friday, Sept. 29, shows a grinning, cocky Tom Cruise as the drug smuggler Barry Seal, hauling a duffle bag bursting with cash. "It's not a felony if you're doing it for the good guys," the poster teases. The film's trailer has Seal casually boasting about his simultaneous work for "the CIA, the DEA and Pablo Escobar."
One critic was led to ask: "So, was Seal a triple agent?" Perhaps. The producers say this swaggering story, based mostly in Arkansas, is all "based on a true lie."
"American Made" is Hollywood's second film about Seal, the trafficker-turned-government-informant who is fast becoming America's most intriguing outlaw. HBO released the first, "Doublecrossed," starring Dennis Hopper as Seal, in 1991, five years after Seal's controversial murder.
When Cruise's film was announced, its title was going to be "Mena," after the town in Arkansas where a local company hid Seal's aircraft and modified them for drug drops. I was a reporter focusing on drugs in the 1980s, but I learned of Seal's three-year presence at Mena only after the night in 1986 when Colombian assassins gunned him down in Baton Rouge, La.
I became one of many reporters who tried to untangle Seal's story and, though that task ultimately proved impossible, I did learn a lot about him. But now, the bits and pieces collected about Seal have provided enough material — enough "true lies" — for Hollywood to weave into films that enlarge his legend.
But his actual story is littered with dead ends — secrets that are still being carefully kept — especially in Arkansas. And here, I'm sorry to say, some police records that were open to the public 20 years ago are apparently no longer available.
I wouldn't know this if it weren't for Cruise's film. When it was announced with a planned release in 2016, Rod Lorenzen, the manager of Butler Center Books, a division of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, asked me to write a history of Seal's time in Arkansas to correspond with the movie's release. I was honored. The Butler Center is part of the highly respected Arkansas Studies Institute, a creation of the Central Arkansas Library System and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
I'm a huge admirer of the ASI and consider its staff my friends. Yet I declined. I told Lorenzen that the book he proposed would be too hard to write; that there were still too many people in power — in both political parties — who did not want Seal's full story told.
But Lorenzen persisted. I began to waver, recalling the words of some Arkansans who'd known Barry Seal.
"I can arrest an old hillbilly out here with a pound of marijuana and a local judge and jury would send him to the penitentiary," a former sheriff at Mena in 1988 had said, "but a guy like Seal flies in and out with hundreds of pounds of cocaine and he stays free."