Before there was Back to the Future and Doc Brown, there was just John DeLorean — the man described as “too technicolor” for the world in which he resided so decided to create his own. Produced and directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (the duo behind such documentaries as Batman & Bill and The Art of the Steal), Framing John DeLorean tells the straight-out-of-Hollywood story of the automobile icon.
Clocking in at just under two hours, the film opens with a collection of writers, producers, and directors who, at some point or another, had all been attached to a variety of unmade DeLorean biopics. Framing John DeLorean hinges on this idea that his story was always destined for the big screen. And for the most part, the argument holds up. After all, DeLorean’s tale has all the ingredients of a silver screen hit: fast cars, supermodels, fraud, and cocaine.
The first 40 minutes or so of Framing John DeLorean meander slowly through his early career. He grew up in Detroit dreaming of designing and engineering cars. Upon finding himself head of the Pontiac division of General Motors (“the old lady division”), DeLorean set off trailblazing and designed what many consider the first muscle car: the Pontiac GTO.
He thrived at GM for a moment before intentionally leaking a planned speech speaking ill of executives who attempted to censor him. DeLorean was quickly removed from the company, and from there, the infamous DeLorean Motor Company was born.
Rather than depend on archival footage and testimony alone, Argott and Joyce employ a cast of actors and a meta-filmmaking style to intercut reenactments of some of DeLorean’s most iconic moments. Alec Baldwin stars as DeLorean with Morena Baccarin as third wife and model Cristina Ferrare and Josh Charles as early collaborator Bill Collins (who also appears in person, commentating throughout).
Baldwin, who was tapped to play DeLorean in a never-made film long before this documentary was in production, sits in a makeup chair early in the film, watching talk show clips, discussing character motivations while getting a prosthetic jaw applied to match DeLorean’s plastic surgery enhancements. “You have to play him as he sees himself,” Baldwin remarks. “A hero.”
This stylistic choice, while sometimes failing in its integration to the film, matches DeLorean’s constant desire to push the boundaries of convention. It’s hard to ever see Baldwin fully encompassing DeLorean rather than as an actor playing the role, but the dramatized scenes work well on occasion, especially once scandal takes over DeLorean’s life.
After Collins and DeLorean hand-made the prototype of the iconic DMC-12, funding was secured in part by British governmental incentives to set up shop in Northern Ireland. DeLorean was on top of the world when the cars began rolling out. But overzealousness continued to plague him.
He constantly wanted more and more, causing him to cut ties with Collins and ultimately fall into the trouble that ended his career. When the DMC-12 didn’t sell as well as they planned, he pushed for more to be produced rather than slowing production down. DeLorean Motor Company was quickly becoming defunct and, desperate for cash, its founder got tangled in the world of cocaine smuggling and fraud.
DeLorean’s former neighbor was a criminal informant for the FBI and, as the title of the film suggests, worked with agents to essentially frame DeLorean for drug smuggling. Although they tried desperately, the sting operation never came together. They recorded tons of meetings and phone calls between DeLorean and a variety of unsavory characters — this is where Baldwin’s re-creations work best.
Argott and Joyce picked their witnesses well, with testimonies from the Feds, prosecutors, and DeLorean’s lawyer all giving their perspective on the case. This is the strongest and most intriguing segment of Framing John DeLorean. We’ll never know the full truth — if DeLorean was entrapped or was the mastermind behind it all — but the jury acquitted him regardless.
This scandal, as well as his other well-documented missteps, had a profound impact on DeLorean’s kids, Zachary and Kathryn. They were just children and when their father’s life came crumbling down, and with it so did theirs. Zachary speaks fondly of his father throughout the film, even when it’s through evident pain.
F-bombs are dropped nearly every other word from Zachary, and when he gives a tour of his dingy apartment, it’s clear his life is no longer the one of relative luxury that it was growing up. Long after DeLorean has passed, this is who is dealing with the ramifications from the man’s mistakes.
When Framing John DeLorean shows us the real-life fallout rather than the Baldwin focused re-creations, it thrives. From Collins to Zachary and Kathryn, many who are still around today were impacted by DeLorean’s endless zeal.
The film argues that he was a man of intrigue deserving of a big-budget Hollywood picture, but if this is the only film you ever see about him, that’s just fine. After a slow start, Framing John DeLorean kicks up the intensity and finishes strong, saving the best for last with a high profile entrapment case and a son’s emotional insight about his father.