×

Tribeca Film Review: ‘Framing John DeLorean’

An absorbing documentary, with Alec Baldwin popping up in dramatic re-enactments, adds new insight to the inspiring and scandalous saga of John DeLorean, the auto magnate who got too high on his dream.

Director:
Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce
With:
Alec Baldwin, Josh Charles, Morena Baccarin, Dean Winters, Michael Rispoli.

Official Site: https://www.tribecafilm.com/filmguide/framing-john-delorean-2019

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.

Popular on Variety

Tribeca Film Review: 'Framing John DeLorean'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary), April 30, 2018. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: A Sundance Selects release of a 9.14 Pictures, XYZ Films production. Producers: Tamir Ardon, Nick Spicer, Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce. Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian, Nick Moceri, Thane Ritchie.

Crew: Directors: Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce. Screenplay: Dan Greeney, Alexandra Orton. Camera (color, widescreen): Matthew Santo. Editor: Demian Fenton. Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair.

With: Alec Baldwin, Josh Charles, Morena Baccarin, Dean Winters, Michael Rispoli.

More Film

  • Jamie Bell Without Remorse

    Jamie Bell Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Bell is in final negotiations to join Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel “Without Remorse.” Stefano Sollima, who most recently helmed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” is directing from a script by “Sicaro” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. As previously announced, Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known [...]

  • Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter,

    'Downton Abbey' Movie Sequel? Producers Tease That They Have 'Some Ideas'

    “Downton Abbey” holds the record as the most-nominated international show at the Emmy Awards with 69 nominations and 15 wins — and now, it stands a chance to nab an Oscar. More than three years after the beloved series signed off the air following six critically-acclaimed seasons, “Downton Abbey” is making its big-screen debut. “It [...]

  • Todd Phillips Joaquin Phoenix Joker Movie

    What's Woker Than 'Joker'? Film Critics Made Everything Political at Fall Festivals

    “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Joaquin Phoenix, playing a deranged incel version of the DC supervillain in “Joker,” the unconventional comic book movie that’s sucked up much of the air from the fall festival circuit. Like an aggro caricature of the “involuntary celibates” who troll message boards online, [...]

  • Running Against the Wind

    Young Africans' Dreams Are Focus of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda Oscar Picks

    Films about young Africans trying to fulfill their dreams in the face of war, poverty, tradition and other forms of adversity have been submitted for Oscar consideration by three East African nations. The selections by Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda to compete in the international feature film category reflect the relative youth of filmmaking in the [...]

  • Bob Bakish Viacom CEO

    ViacomCBS Leaders Talk NFL Negotiations, Streaming Wars and Merger Focus

    Viacom and CBS aim to prosper in the streaming arena by covering both ends of the marketplace, blending Viacom’s focus on ad-supported platforms with CBS’ strong head start on subscribers for CBS All Access and Showtime. ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish and incoming ViacomCBS chief financial officer Christina Spade outlined the combined company’s vision for how [...]

  • Steven Poster ICG National President

    DP Steven Poster to Receive SOC Lifetime Achievement Award

    Stephen Poster, cinematographer on such classics as “Donnie Darko” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” will receive the Lifetime Achievement Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Camera Operators at a ceremony on Jan. 18, 2020. SOC grants the award to an Individual who has served the community at large and/or the Society through outstanding service [...]

  • RUTH HANDLER Barbie doll creator Ruth

    'Dream Doll' Biopic on Barbie Doll Inventor in Development (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Dream Doll,” a biopic based on Barbie Doll inventor Ruth Handler, is in development with Bron Studios, Rita Wilson and Rare Bird Films, Variety has learned exclusively. The film will chronicle the life of Handler as she founded Mattel in 1945 and created the now-iconic Barbie doll, named after her daughter Barbara, in 1959. Handler [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content