A visionary who flew too close to the sun. A dream of success that became a nightmare. A golden boy turned prince of darkness. Name your grandiose American metaphor, and the saga of John DeLorean, the GM-executive-turned-lone-wolf-entrepreneur who invented the car of the future (only to see it relegated to the junkyard of the past), probably lives up to it. Yet as you watch “Framing John DeLorean,” a tasty and satisfying look at the rise and fall of the self-styled auto magnate of the ’70s and ’80s, you realize how easily a story like DeLorean’s can get consumed by the myths that emerge from it.
In “Framing John DeLorean,” the co-directors, Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, do a superb job of laying out the real story, in all its ambition and hubris and madness and tragedy, and separating the myths from the facts. And they succeed, in part, because the movie they’re making dares to be an adventurous hybrid.
It’s basically a documentary, and quite a good one. But the nonfiction heart of it, complete with newsreels, photographs, and talking-head testimonials, not to mention all the grainy FBI drug-sting surveillance footage you could want, is mixed in with scenes that are like something out of a biopic, with Alec Baldwin appearing in thick black eyebrows, a shovel chin, and floppy graying hair to play DeLorean. In case that doesn’t sound meta enough for you, there are moments when Baldwin comments on the scenes he’s about to play, as if he were a Method psychoanalyst digging his way into the meaning of DeLorean’s life and actions.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. Baldwin, who’s in only about 15 percent of the film, is a great talker who understands the nuances of megalomania. And he resembles the leonine automaker closely enough. But even when Baldwin is clearly wearing a wig and facial prosthetics, it just emphasizes that DeLorean was a man who created his own image, getting plastic surgery to extend his chin, transforming himself from a debonair but buttoned-down corporate engineer of the “Mad Men” era to a rugged, swinging ’70s player.
The film’s fascinating early section is devoted to the years DeLorean spent at General Motors. A brilliant engineer, he was put in charge of the Pontiac division, where he spearheaded the dawn of the muscle-car era by creating the GTO, in 1964, out of what was supposed to be the second-generation Pontiac Tempest. In photographs from this period, DeLorean looks less like the man we’re used to than a kind of elongated Rowan Atkinson; we look at him now and see the weak chin (the same way that he must have). He enjoyed incredible success at GM, selling tens of thousands of cars, yet even though he saw, before almost anyone else, how the youth market would transform the auto industry, DeLorean was resented at the company for his arrogance and his flashy lifestyle. (In the power corridors of the auto business, it was still the 1950s.)
Part of DeLorean’s vision is that he wasn’t just a sports-car guy. With the arrival of the Volkswagen, he grasped that the writing was on the wall for the big-car era, but the suits at GM didn’t want to hear it. He became an executive on the fabled 14th floor, and was in line to become president of the company, but by leaking his criticisms of GM’s conservative outlook to the press, he did himself in. In 1973, he was let go.
That’s when the decided to create his own automobile. Says one observer, “It was part dream, and part revenge.” (Revenge against GM, that is.) DeLorean dreamed of building a sophisticated, contemporary-looking sports car for the masses. It would be made of non-corrosive material, and would hang together forever. When we first hear the plan for what became the DCM-12, there’s an eerie overlap between the idealism of the product — intensely durable, a machine of beauty, made with a post-tech look of brushed steel — and the way that Steve Jobs imagined what computers could be. With its gull-wing doors, the DeLorean now seems a deliriously extravagant contraption, but DeLorean thought of it as a highly accessible bang-for-the-buck product.
There are reasons why it’s next to impossible to get a car company off the ground. The capital investment required is too great to match the demand for a product that not enough people are convinced they need. (Just ask Elon Musk.) But DeLorean, who solidified his celebrity status when he married Cristina Ferrare, who when then the top supermodel in the world, knew how to raise cash. He got investors to pony up $17 million, and then decided to build his factory in Belfast — in the thick of the Troubles — because the British Labour Party agreed to capitalize it as no other government would.
“Framing John DeLorean” catches you up in DeLorean’s fever. That’s true even if you think, as I do, that his dream car was not a thing of beauty. With a design based, in essence, on the Lotus Esprit, it was sleek but boxy — it looked like a cross between a Ferrari and an electric razor. That said, DeLorean’s obsession was about something way beyond greed, and once that dream took hold of him he couldn’t let it go.
The car was doomed by a perfect storm of bad developments. The initial shipment of 3,500 cars had a ton of glitches, but instead of slowing production to correct them, DeLorean doubled down. Then automobile sales hit a slump. Then Margaret Thatcher came to power, putting the kibosh on the British government investment deal. DeLorean had gone all in, and the cards didn’t come up his way. He needed a vast infusion of cash, and that’s what caused him to invest in a massive cocaine deal.
The movie shows you surveillance tape from that scandal that we haven’t seen before, and to anyone who thinks (as the jury found) that DeLorean was “entrapped” — well, yes, he was, but that’s how undercover law enforcement works. You get entrapped, and then you go to prison. DeLorean’s attempt to portray himself as innocent of what he was doing amounted to a lawyer’s trick, and that becomes more evident with the revelation of the shell company he set up (along with Lotus car designer Colin Chapman) to steal funds from his investors. By then, his dream had become half of a compartmentalized double life, and Baldwin, in the re-enactments, touches DeLorean’s squirmy soul.
DeLorean screwed over his family, his investors, his collaborators, and his dream, and “Framing John DeLorean” records all the fallout. (The interviews with his middle-aged son, who’s a true lost soul, are haunting.) The movie gives us the unhappy ending that was basically the real ending, though it also revels in the happy ending we’re used to: the fact that “Back to the Future” transformed the DMC-12, for all time, into a sci-fi pop-art fantasy machine. There’s a poetic justice to that (a vindication for DeLorean), but a perfect meaning too. Namely, that a sci-fi pop-art fantasy machine — far more than a car — is what the DeLorean always was.