By David D’Arcy
John DeLorean remains an unwieldy figure whose story is difficult to frame — the new film leaves much unreported and unexplored.
Framing John DeLorean, directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce. IFC Films. (Not in Boston theaters, available on demand.)
For a man who seemed written out of the automotive industry, John DeLorean (1925-2005) keeps coming back. DeLorean’s charm, his cars, and his hubris provide the fuel for the new documentary hybrid, Framing John DeLorean. Alec Baldwin shares top billing with the would-be automotive revolutionary, whom we see in archival footage.
The film is a voyage of discovering (or remembering) the rise and fall of a glamorous maverick in a rigid corporate culture, at a time when companies like General Motors still ran things and made cars in Detroit.
There’s another element to the story as well. Framing John DeLorean reminds us that wish-fulfillment plays a crucial role in business, just as it does in the movies. DeLorean attracted investors who hoped his magic sheen might rub off on them. The public was transfixed by his stainless-steel car, the DCM 12. Yet when the DeLorean Motor Company attempted to print the legend – i.e., put its myth on the road – the DeLorean didn’t work much of the time.
Directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce scrap the standard verite doc style, scripting Baldwin into reenactments of moments in DeLorean’s career as the film attempts to probe underneath the man’s stage-managed persona.
The film rarely gives us the private DeLorean, but Framing John DeLorean resonates with American rise-and-fall archetypes — though the parallels are inexact if still illuminating. The film hints at Citizen Kane, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 automotive drama Tucker, Steve Jobs (subject of several films), Elon Musk (this generation’s automotive game-changer with Tesla), and the notorious medical start-up ingenue Elizabeth Holmes, whose firm built on a blood testing machine was valued at over $9 billion until it failed under scrutiny. That gambit could now land her in prison. Alex Gibney tracked Holmes’s story in this years HBO film The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.
Think also of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. DeLorean outdid GM executives in his quest for luxury, but he attacked them in the name of an ideal: employing workers to make an “ethical” car with high fuel efficiency that wouldn’t rust.
Let’s not forget Ayn Rand. After plastic surgery reshaped his jaw, the 6 foot 4 auto exec looked a bit like Gary Cooper, star of the screen version of The Fountainhead (1949). Given DeLorean’s studious self-promotion, the resemblance was probably no accident
There’s also Back to the Future (1985), where a DeLorean DCM 12 is the time-travel vehicle that sent Michael J. Fox back to the era of his parents’ youth. If you can recall that film, you’ll remember the car.
For those who don’t remember, John Zachary DeLorean was the son of immigrants, an engineer for General Motors in ’60s Detroit, a place of employment and opportunity when GM was the world’s largest corporation. His Romanian father spoke English poorly and drank too much. Heading the Pontiac division, then an old folks’ brand, DeLorean imagined the GTO, “The Goat” – a fast and sexy “muscle car” for youth, complete with its own pop song (“My Little GTO”) that echoed the Beach Boys. The pitch line: “Get One. Before you’re too old to understand.” It was almost as good as “don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
GM execs didn’t believe in the GTO, but it made money for the company, lots of money. DeLorean the engineer was seen as a marketing genius — along with that came his plastic surgery and a young blonde wife, later a brunette supermodel — and GM put him charge of Chevrolet. He planned a facelift for the workhorse brand. Ambitious and vain, he’d also been making his own business deals that raised ethical issues.
Eventually, GM pushed the upstart out in1973. Delorean insisted that he was too smart and creative for dull Detroit. His new new thing was the car in stainless steel, a metal that would never decay – the notion sounded like the promise of eternal youth. The car would have “gull wing” doors that rose open from the sides.
The press swooned over DeLorean, as did cities that wanted a car plant that brought in jobs. He made a deal to make the auto in Puerto Rico, but ditched that plan in 1978 in order to produce it in a swamp called Dunmurry in war-torn Belfast. He was bankrolled by the British government. With a workforce of Catholics and Protestants eager for work, he fast-tracked production. The result were cars that came off as Edsels rather than vehicles of the future. When money themoney ran out, the new Thatcher government denied him more. With DeLorean’s cash crisis, an FBI informant smelled blood, and lured him into a cocaine smuggling deal in 1982. Yes, John DeLorean was framed.
DeLorean was acquitted in 1984 on those charges (although it turned out he had embezzled a big chunk of the funds London gave him). Still, the car operation closed in 1982. Besides lackluster performance, the doors would regularly malfunction, trapping DeLorean owners in their cars – a wry metaphor for vanity’s pay back.
The exec was ditched by his supermodel wife and was used for non-payment by the lawyer who kept him out of prison. The success story that launched a thousand media profiles gave way to a slew of books tracking his downfall. His New Jersey estate is now the clubhouse at Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf club.
DeLorean remains an unwieldy huckster whose story is difficult to frame – the new film leaves much unreported and unexplored.
Baldwin plays the man as an ambitious but charming dreamer, albeit one who loved luxury, too entangled in his own ascent to bother with rules. The reality was more sinister. His crooked personal deals dated back to his GM days. By the time of the cocaine bust, he was planning a stock offering that cheated his own car dealers. DeLorean also employed a business enforcer, Roy Nesseth, who threatened to kill associates and their children — but we don’t see him or a character playing him in the film. For more on the darker side of DeLorean, see the nuts-and-bolts 1980’s British doc Scandal: Life in the Fast Lane.
In Framing, we do see former employees at Dunmurry, Protestants and Catholics who worked in peace, a rare achievement. From them, DeLorean sounds like Don Juan, the man who gave the them best time of their lives before he abandoned them.
Another witness is Zach DeLorean, the car exec’s adopted son. Living in squalor with his dogs, he’s eager to tell his story, spewing out all the obscenities that his image-conscious father wouldn’t utter in public. Just like the car, he’s had a bumpy ride.
Like so many others, Zach DeLorean and the Belfast workers (and investors and dealers who said DeLorean cheated them) are now figures in the rear-view mirror. When John DeLorean wasn’t looking ahead, he was looking in a mirror at himself. You’re left wondering what his car might have been — if he’d given it more attention.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.