By Terry Reed, Author of Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA. It finally happened. The complex core of my book Compromised, the CIA's covert guns and drugs debacle cleverly mislabeled the Iran Contra Scandal, has hit the big screen thanks to the efforts of Universal Studios, Director Doug Liman, Screen Writer Gary Spinelli, Tom Cruise and a host of professionals. Liman told me he was attracted to this project as a result of insider information he gleaned from his father Arthur Liman, Chief Counsel for the US Senate's investigation of the Iran Contra affair.
As the person who wrote the original, first hand and definitive book on the Barry Seal/Mena, Arkansas operation, from the inside, I was the most skeptical critic the movie had to win over since I had lived much of the Mena ordeal right along side Barry Seal
the movie's main character played by Cruise.
Sure, there are major deviations from the historical record of what happened in Mena, and the screenwriter exercised his dramatic license combining characters and blending together events for the purpose of cramming this sordid story into 120 minutes of educational entertainment. But that's Hollywood.
As someone who worked with several major Hollywood production companies and screen writers (Clint Eastwood and Dennis Hackin just to drop names) who attempted to bring Compromised to the theaters, I realize how difficult it is find that balance between authenticity, entertainment, time constraints and marketability. Doug Liman has done just that! Those I worked with who attempted to whittle Compromised down to an understandable narrative were most often left with a docudrama type product that in most cases over-reflected the political bend of the whittlers. Just as the title of my book suggests, the Iran Contra scandal and the subsequent unraveling of a CIA covert operation run amuck impacts both political parties. Sure, most will argue that Hollywood is liberal and most likely to err on the side of protect-the-Democrats at all costs, but let's face it, the vast majority of the guns and drugs scandal imbedded within the Mena/Contra support program falls directly into Republican laps. Again, Liman did a superb job of staying true to the Mena geographical location and then suggesting strongly that then-Governor Bill Clinton had a hand in it when the US Attorney's efforts to apprehend Seal in Arkansas are thwarted.
But alas, two hours is a short time to compress history, relay intricate information into a comprehensible story line and then ultimately deal with the life and fate of Cruise's character, pilot Barry Seal. Cruise for the most part is receiving accolades for his Seal portrayal, and I agree American Made underscores that occasionally Cruise can move outside of his Mission Impossible persona and reacquaint us with the depths of his talent.
I must say how rewarding it is to have consulted on the movie with Doug Liman and his staff, and to see how he wove the nuances I provided into the scenes in such an authentic and unobtrusive way. The Contra training camp and mile-high-club scene are just a few of those nuggets that cause the screenplay to frequently place foot on terra firma.
Debbie Seal, the real life widow of Barry who unfortunately is being forced to relive this tragic chapter of her life by watching her husband's demise, saw the movie in a different light. She reminded me that Barry was double-crossed by the Reagan White House which not only resulted in her husband's death by Pablo Escobar, but also forced her to raise their three children alone. Debbie compared it to Jacqueline Kennedy watching a movie of the JFK assassination. A grim reality check.
The Mena/Iran Contra scandal resulted in many of us falling into the category of "disposable assets" and being falsely labeled when a covert White House back door operation ran amuck, and we became political liabilities. Much of what we suffered through was the result of cowardly behavior on behalf of the Reagan/Bush Administrations who knew full well that many of us who were recruited for this covert operation were "left in the cold" and disavowed when this violation of Congressional Law (The Boland Amendment) became public knowledge. Most of us were Vietnam Veterans who had skill sets needed for the operation and felt honored to be selected to become part of a CIA backed Air America style operation.
This is where I do take exception to the movie plot line. Many of us, myself included, had nothing to do with the transportation of illegal narcotics into America. We were briefed on Barry Seal's multi-prong, multi-agency (DEA, and US Customs undercover activities penetrating the Medellin Cartel that included "controlled deliveries" of cocaine) operation but the vast majority of us were tasked with the difficult and dangerous work of training the Contras to build out their own guerilla warfare weapons air delivery system and delivering both munitions and humanitarian aid in a war zone. The movie had two different opportunities to move deeper in this direction, but I presume time constraints kept the plot line humming along in the direction it took.
All in all it is a great first effort to bring the Iran Contra scandal to the movie theaters. It is about flawed human nature, war, life, death and the seedy behavior of politicians and the alphabet soup federal agencies that violate their own codes of ethics and policies,all in the guise of National Security.
If you haven't seen American Made do so. But I must brief you. Fasten your seat belt, stow your tray table and get ready for an exciting, educational and turbulent flight.
P.S. Thank you Doug Liman for your satchel charge effort to blow the doors off this scandal. Iran Contra still screams out for an in-depth and tell-all docudrama production that lets the political fall-out descend as it may and truly takes no prisoners. I am currently working on that project.
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