John DeLorean has a biography that could have been reverse-engineered from a Hollywood epic about the rise and fall of an auto-industry mogul. The story of his life suggests Citizen Kane set in the world of cars, so it’s no wonder there have been dozens of attempts to turn his life into a biopic. That’s information we learn right away from Framing John DeLorean, a documentary that uses reenactments to dramatize his flamboyant life and spectacular downfall. Directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce understand that DeLorean’s appeal lies in his glamorous life and tragic demise, and they have made a fast-paced, richly designed, sprightly edited work about their ostentatious and irresistible subject.
Like Citizen Kane, the film begins DeLorean’s story after his downfall, with archival footage of him taking a polygraph test ahead of his trial for drug trafficking and embezzlement in the early ’80s. Like Charles Foster Kane’s snow globe, the answers elicited by the test transport us into the past, revealing DeLorean to have always had within him the seed of the con man. An engineer who worked his way up through the ranks at General Motors, he grew up in Detroit in the shadow of the greatest car factories in the world, fantasizing of one day dominating this quintessentially American industry. The filmmakers portray this time and place as a dream world for someone like DeLorean, who seems to drip design magic from head to toe. He’s a man with a golden touch, spewing unimagined profits for GM—at the time the largest company in the world—with every new model under his careful watch.
Launching the muscle car movement with the Pontiac GTO, DeLorean quickly became a rock star within the auto industry. With his leathery tanned skin, impressive sideburns, celebrity girlfriends, and cavalier spirit, he was a far cry from his older, staid, conservative colleagues in upper management. This was the late ’60s and early ’70s, and DeLorean represented the closest the counterculture would get to the upper echelons of American capitalism. He was something of a rebel in his field, and the man’s oppositional status makes for a compelling narrative dichotomy, as Framing John DeLorean paints him as an underdog taking on Big Auto when he leaves GM to launch his own business: the DeLorean Motor Company.
Throughout Argott and Joyce’s documentary, different writers and directors discuss the various film projects based on DeLorean’s life that they and others tried to make but failed to get off the ground. These projects took varying approaches to representing the car mogul’s life, all of which are embedded into Framing John DeLorean, which portrays DeLorean as a cutthroat businessman, obsessed visionary, and Machiavellian manipulator. But most of all, he’s the American maverick behind the DMC DeLorean, the only car ever produced by the DeLorean Motor Company, an automobile so ahead of its time that it was destined to fail.
This, too, explains the car’s appearance in Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future trilogy. It was a piece of serendipitous product placement that would cement DeLorean’s name in American culture forever, and Zemeckis is on hand to explain why he chose the DeLorean to represent his idea of the car of the future: Even though the DeLorean Motor Company had already gone out of business by the time the first Back to the Future was being made, the DeLorean still embodied the cutting edge of automotive design and engineering in the popular imagination.
Framing John DeLorean combines traditional documentary techniques like voiceover narration, interviews, and dramatic recreations with commentary from the actors in the recreations on the people they’re depicting. While many of the people in DeLorean’s life are impersonated throughout the film, one notable exception is DeLorean’s son, Zach, now a middle-aged man so visibly broken by his father’s downfall that his testimony is almost too much to bear. It’s the kind of unexpected testimony that almost warrants its own film.
Perhaps the filmmakers’ smartest decision was casting Alec Baldwin to play—or, rather, impersonate—DeLorean in the reenactment scenes. Baldwin’s spontaneous meditation on what must have been going through DeLorean’s mind at the moment of his arrest is as shrewd a commentary as any in the film on the carmaker’s hidden thoughts and fears. Baldwin’s droll, hammy genius, honed by several comically pompous bosses on television, is a perfect fit for the part. We see Baldwin’s face being transformed by a makeup artist into DeLorean’s through a copious amount of latex. It’s obscene, outrageous, and exaggeratedly synthetic, a grotesque yet oddly convincing parody that makes for a slightly unnerving simulacra of DeLorean’s visage, which was so visibly altered by plastic surgery as to become nearly immobile.
So much plastic lends DeLorean, as well as his reincarnation in Baldwin, an almost unworldly unflappability that leaves his true self concealed from the audience and even his loved ones. And Argott and Joyce’s documentary debates whether this inscrutability was merely a part of his conman tactics or something deeper and darker that drove him to nearly destroy himself and his family in pursuit of transcendent automotive glory.
Ultimately, the film sees DeLorean as a quintessentially American innovator and entrepreneur, whose grandiose vision of creating an environmentally friendly sports car for the masses was equal parts reckless, egomaniacal, and deeply democratic. In promoting his flagship car, DeLorean linked it to the bicentennial of the American Revolution, framing his company’s story as a profoundly American dream come true. Even after that dream turns into a nightmare—a hail of cutthroat business deals, drug trafficking, political violence, and personal disaster—he never lost his uniquely American sense of optimism. With his professional and personal life in ruins, he never gave up on his dream, like in any uplifting American epic. Framing John DeLorean will surely not be the last film treatment of this American original, but it’s hard to imagine one more true to the man’s electrifying nature.