Tom Cruise is known in the industry as a very hands-on star -- one who doesn't just act in his movies but becomes a very active member of the creative team. His latest, the true-life drama American Made is no exception, as he had a big hand in the evolution of the script. When I recently asked director Doug Liman how Cruise's influence changed the development of the film, he told me,
The script evolved quite a bit because Tom and I were really drawn to the love story. And that changed everything. We really were looking for this Bonnie & Clyde feeling, and we were starting with this photograph of her in this prison in Guatemala, saying this isn't the starting place of the relationship, but this is the mid-point of the relationship. The starting place is that she thought she married a TWA airline pilot, and it turns out he's working with the CIA and is one of the largest drug smugglers in American history at the same time. And she didn't know that. By the middle of the film, she's in on it with him.
The photograph that Doug Liman was referring to is a shot of Lucy Seal (portrayed by Sarah Wright in the film) visiting her husband, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), while he is locked up in a Guatemalan prison. Rather than being horrified that her husband is in jail and panicking, instead the picture shows that she has brought him a cake that is being cut with a giant machete. Thanks to Cruise's influence, this moment wound up redefining certain angles and approaches to the story in American Made -- as I learned from Liman talking with him over the phone earlier this month.
Ultimately, the relationship between Barry and Lucy Seal is not too dissimilar to the one between Henry and Karen Hill's in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas -- in that he goes out to do some hyper-illegal business while she watches her family's station in life vastly improve. Things aren't always great, especially when they have to transpose their life overnight from Louisiana to Mena, Arkansas, but things for the most part are pretty good when they are dealing with so much money that they can't even find hiding places for it on their massive property.
Lucy Seal actually had quite a lot to put up with from an ethics point of view, as she was trying to raise a family while married to one of the most successful drug smugglers in history. As noted by Doug Liman, she spent the longest time thinking that her husband was a commercial airline pilot for TWA, but that all changed when Barry got an offer to start taking surveillance photos for the CIA. He not only began working with Colombia's notorious Medellín Cartel to bring tons of cocaine into America, but also eventually got caught up in early days of the Iran-Contra affair -- one of the most notable political scandals carried out by the United States government.