General Motors division head, muscle-car godhead, the auto industry’s No. 1 noncomformist, glamorous jet-setter, busted (but not convicted) cocaine trafficker: American rise-and-fall stories don’t get any juicier than John DeLorean. He was the golden boy of Fifties gray-flannel-suit idealism, before morphing into a Sixties speed-demon enabler and symbol of Seventies’ sideburned rebellion — and, because every decade gets the Icarus it deserves, ended up as the perfect parable of Eighties excess. Even if the tall, handsome maverick who shook up the Motor City had never given the world the DMC-12 (that sleek design! those wing-like doors!) and Marty McFly had to travel back to the future in, say, a Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, DeLorean would be still be both a singular corporate hero and cautionary tale.
Not surprisingly, people have been trying to make a movie about his life for ages. Documentarians Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce kick off Framing John DeLorean, their portrait of the late business titan, with a flurry of producers and screenwriters who’ve worked on competing, unmade De Lorean projects over the years. Which may explain why, in addition to throwing dozens of talking-head experts and vintage interviews and TV clips into the mix, they’ve also included re-enactments of key moments featuring Alec Baldwin as the disgraced auto mogul. Every so often, the actor and some of his fellow performers — Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles — will weigh in on how to play these real-life figures, what might have made them tick, how to do certain line readings, etc. Call it a DeLorean doc with benefits.
A few questions: Why do we need the “benefits” part? Unless you’re purposefully trying to one-up all of these Hollywood types who’ve tried and failed to make the Great DeLorean Movie — haha, we managed to pull it off and while making a nonfiction film on him to boot! — why include these sequences at all? Especially if some of them replicate bits of the real thing that are already included in your documentary? Did you not have enough faith in the existing material you had at your disposal? Does the addition of these through-the-looking-glass asides really help pave over any potential gaps in the narrative or pad out the bigger picture? You have numerous folks crowing over how John’s story is pure Hollywood-biopic gold — so why not just make that movie? And given their prominence in so many scenes and the amount of screen time they get, are Baldwin’s bushy fake eyebrows now eligible for SAG-AFTRA membership on their own?
This is what goes through your mind as you watch Framing John DeLorean, and the more these queries suck up your bandwidth, the more you wish the filmmakers had simply constructed the definitive doc on him. (There was a previously made mini-portrait of DeLorean in 1982, courtesy of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus; given that it was done before the fall, however, the chance to do a 360-degree look at their subject was right there.) Because not only are Argott and Joyce accomplished documentarians — see the duo’s The Atomic States of America (2012), or the former’s solo joint The Art of the Steal (2009) — they have a lot of solid archival gold. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the shot of DeLorean, his incredibly young model wife by his side and his shirt open to the navel while standing next to a buttoned-up fellow executive, tells you everything you need to know about why this man irked the conservative car industry. You’re not going to get anything more dramatic than John’s grown son, Zachary, sitting in a DMC-12 and sifting through a lifetime of conflicted emotions.
And while the arrest and trial take up the bulk of the film’s focus, no amount of famous folks mouthing lines can compare to the compelling, grainy black-and-white clips of the real-deal DeLorean getting busted by the feds. No offense to Baldwin — this is the kind of how-the-mighty-has-fallen role he excels at. And no one is asking for vérité purity here. It’s just that most of these sequences don’t need to be here, much less Acting 101 tips and other meta-doc touches. The movie’s title offers itself up to any interpretations: DeLorean being “set up” to go down for drug-dealing; the prominent figure being contextualized within a car culture he helped revolutionize, a youth-obsessed culture he helped fuel (and later chased) and a greater era of ambition and corruption; and how someone playing DeLorean and/or telling his story might place him within the camera eye. It tries to delve into all three versions. It only needed to concentrate on the one that really mattered.