Why has there been no feature film made about John Z. DeLorean, who died in 2005 at 80? He developed an iconic high-concept car — immortalized in the 1985 film “Back to the Future” — and seemed poised to revolutionize the auto industry until his careening career crashed with a 1982 drug bust (he was acquitted in 1984). Surely he deserves a movie of his own?
Interviewed in Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce’s engaging, skillful, sometimes brilliant docu-reenactment hybrid “Framing John DeLorean,” DeLorean’s son Zach enumerates the selling points of such a film. “It’s got cocaine,” he says. “It’s got hot chicks, a sports car, war torn, bombed-out buildings overseas, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, hardcore drug dealers. . . .”
Other interviewees — some oxymoronically identified as “producer of an unproduced John DeLorean film” — echo this pitch and speculate why the story has been a hot property for so many for so long but nothing has come of it. Everyone has a different interpretation, suggests one. And nobody gets it quite right.
If not a biopic, how about a documentary? No less than legendary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker gave it a try with their film “DeLorean” (1981). Did their observational-cinema style penetrate the subject’s carefully nurtured self-image? “He was very guarded,” recalls Pennebaker. “He had so many things on his mind.”
To crack the DeLorean enigma Argott and Joyce try to combine the virtues of fiction and nonfiction by resorting to self-reflexivity. To do so, in addition to the usual interviews and archival footage, they share a behind-the-scenes look at their re-creations of events in DeLorean’s life.
Near the beginning of the film, for example, Alec Baldwin relates how he had been once asked by DeLorean to portray him in an aborted 2005 project. Now Baldwin is being made up as the entrepreneur for Argott and Joyce’s project and is explaining to his wife over Skype what the film is about. “We’re doing reenactment footage of DeLorean’s drama,” he says. “We shoot it as a movie and then we cut the reenacted footage into documentary footage of a movie about DeLorean.”
If you’re going to fake it, it seems, maybe it’s less fake if you make a big deal about showing how and why the faking is done.
That wasn’t DeLorean’s style, however. He never let on when he was faking it, and made sure the line between truth and illusion, between good and evil, was never clear.
True, he was caught on film in a hotel room apparently sealing a multi-million-dollar deal with a notorious cocaine trafficker. But was he really buying the drugs or scamming the dealer? Was he unfairly targeted by the feds in a sting in order to set up a high-profile case publicizing President Reagan’s war on drugs? Wasn’t the money from the deal to be used to save his factory in Belfast (undermined by Thatcher’s miserly policies), which was providing jobs for a beleaguered people and helping to ease ongoing sectarian violence? Or had he already secretly made millions for himself by laundering funds that could have financed the factory?
Argott and Joyce subordinate these more pressing political questions to a mirror-box exploration of the nature of truth and the unfathomable secrets of the soul. As such it is thoughtful, sometimes ingenious, but you can’t help thinking that they missed the real story.
Like that of DeLorean’s son Zach. He might be a worthier subject of study than his father, who is a prototype of the narcissistic con man that has become all too familiar today. Still wounded by his father’s betrayal, Zach dresses like a homeless person, lives in a slovenly rat trap of an apartment with two dogs, and speaks with good-humored, obscenity-laced bitterness about the past. Like thousands of others, he is a victim of a visionary who envisioned a future strictly for himself.
“Framing John DeLorean” can be seen for free as part of the newportFILM Outdoors series at the Newport International Polo Grounds on June 27 at 8:45 p.m. It will be preceded at 7:30 p.m. by a performance of live music by Los Duderinos and followed by a Q&A with the directors.
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★ ★ ★
Directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. Starring Alec Baldwin. At Kendall Square. 109 minutes. Unrated.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.