In Framing John DeLorean, Philadelphia-based documentarians Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (The Art of the Steal) mix fact, drama, and speculation to draw an ambitious portrait of the fabled automaker, but within the frame, key questions remain unanswered.
The most urgent: Was the purportedly revolutionary car company he built back in the 1980s ever anything more than the Enron of its day?
At least $100 million was raised and much of it simply disappeared, as was discovered when the company went bankrupt in 1982. A jury acquitted him of fraud charges, but the missing money was never accounted for. Did he know what happened to it?
The movie has footage of DeLorean evading the latter question — showing his back to the interviewer who asks it. Throughout his life he put up a wall of silence, and though he purportedly spent the last two decades of his life as a born-again Christian (he died in New Jersey at 80), there is no evidence here that his religious conversion led to clarifying accountability.
His lasting legacy is the vehicle that his company did manage to build — the famous gull-winged, stainless steel sports car made of “noncorrosive” materials and advertised as “immortal,” meant to be an embarrassment to the planned obsolescence that was the business model of the Detroit he fled in the 1970s, after building the GTO at Pontiac.
In the early 1980s, he did manage to crank out a few thousand DMC-12s at a factory in Ireland, but if the components were indeed noncorrosive, DeLorean himself was made of less stainless stuff. He recruited close friends and ace Detroit engineers who are interviewed in the film to follow him to the DeLorean Motor Company, then dumped them shortly after striking a deal to build the cars in Europe, financed by the United Kingdom. The complexities of the various loans, subsidies, and investments allowed DeLorean and his new partners to shuffle and shield millions in cash from original investors, money that went missing when the company ran into trouble.
This left DeLorean desperate for fresh capital, and the documentary dutifully records the infamous chain of events that arose from that need. He tried to raise money via a drug deal that turned out to be a U.S. government sting operation. That prosecution failed, but the cloud of suspicion remained, even among those closest to him.
His family disintegrated (the damage is evident among survivors interviewed), his car became a curiosity among collectors and a costar of Back to the Future. DeLorean himself was the subject of several failed Hollywood film projects.
The self-promoting DeLorean courted Hollywood interest. Early footage shows a conventional man in boxy suits and close-cropped black hair, like a ’50s football coach. Almost overnight, he morphs (via plastic surgery) into a groovy Hollywood cat with long hair as silvery as his famous car, and a new supermodel wife, Cristina Ferrare.
There was the man he presented — coiffed visionary genius — and the man he was, faithless with friends and a huckster whose claims about himself and his products were consistently and dangerously inflated. Argott and Joyce bring in Alec Baldwin to play DeLorean in dramatized scenes, perhaps hoping an actor (who mostly sits in a makeup chair and pontificates) could shed light on DeLorean’s performative self-invention. Baldwin concludes, unhelpfully, that for him each new day brings a new idea of who DeLorean was. The film’s feints at drama in the end feel like a substitute for the artful presentation of rigorous research, which has its own narrative power.
Framing John DeLorean. Directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Featuring Alec Baldwin, Josh Charles, and Morena Baccarin. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parents’ guide: Not rated
Playing at: Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Ritz Five