“Framing John DeLorean,” the new hybrid documentary of the business life on the “Back to the Future” car creator, is a strange movie. Part traditional doc, complete with talking heads, archival photographs and even some FBI sting footage, it is also part docu-drama, featuring recreations with actor Alec Baldwin as DeLorean. Weirder still, Baldwin, all busy eyebrows and grey hair, offers up backstage observations on playing DeLorean. The carman was a bold character and portraying him on screen requires taking chances; most surprising of all is that it all works rather seamlessly.
It’s an interesting, ambiguously meta take on a man who was a bit of a hybrid himself. Part genius, part criminal, he was a person whose vision for reinvention extended from the futuristic car he designed to enhancing his own chin with plastic surgery to present the image he had of himself to the world, face first.
Directors and co-writers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce provide the necessary background; how, at General Motors he spearheaded the creation of the GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix, how he was a devoted father and how, as CEO of the DeLorean Motor Company, he revolutionized the car industry with his stainless steel sports cars and gave a massive shot in the arm to Northern Ireland’s economy during the Troubles. They also detail the sordid side, the FBI videotaped sting and arrest for trafficking cocaine, Phil Donahue’s public excoriation of the man and his business practices, a divorce and marriage to a much younger woman and bankruptcy.
The resulting portrait is layered look at an unknowable man. Archival footage reveals a person with plenty of bluster and hubris, someone whose grandiose ideas required extraordinary measures to come to fruition. Baldwin, under an inch of exaggerated prosthetic make-up, tries to contextualize DeLorean’s thought processes by applying an actor’s process to his subject’s thinking, but it is conjecture, not fact. Interesting conjecture, but conjecture all the same and not exactly the stuff of true documentary. More compelling are DeLorean’s daughter Kathryn and son Zach who lend open and honest analysis of their father. Zach even colorfully describes his father’s life as a Hollywood movie. “It’s got cocaine,” he says. “It’s got ‘bleeping’ hot chicks. It’s got sports cars, ‘bleeping’ Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The war on drugs. You got FBI agents and you got ‘bleeping’ hardcore drug dealers.”
“Framing John DeLorean” is a compellingly told story of a complex man, an Icarus, that asks but never answers the question at the core of DeLorean’s myth: Was he a cutthroat criminal or innovative genius or both? Instead it provides fodder for further exploration on the man and his methods.