The life of John DeLorean would make a helluva movie.
That’s a thesis that opens and closes “Framing John DeLorean,” a new genre-bending docu-drama about the creator of the car immortalized in “Back to the Future.”
There were screenplays floating around, projects in development about the GM star who invented “The Muscle Car,” got fired and started the futuristic DeLorean Motor Company only to get caught trying to close a drug deal in order to save it.
It could be a “Tucker: The Man and his Dream” — with cocaine, and a supermodel (his then-wife), the politics of “The Troubles” (they built DeLoreans in Northern Ireland) and a Shakespearean hero with a Shakespearean “tragic flaw.” Or two.
But “Framing John DeLorean,” by the filmmakers who gave us “The Art of the Steal” and “Batman & Bill” (Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce) so demythologizes the man that you can sort of see why the movie never came to be.
It’s still too soon. Maybe too much is remembered. Maybe it’ll take time to forget that the heroic image the public once bathed this ’80s icon in was as phony as Reagan’s hair color. Maybe the Coppola who makes this “Tucker” is a kid who just fell in love with “Back to the Future.”
Joyce and Argott build “Framing” with interviews with DeLorean’s associates, with a biographer and journalists who covered him and even reviewed his “slow, didn’t handle great, cost more than a Corvette” car.
But the structure they frame the movie with is recreations of DeLorean’s big public moments, reenactments of the F.B.I. surveillance footage of that infamous drug deal (we see the real footage in the film’s opening), and those reenactments star Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin (as supermodel Cristina Ferrare, his wife), Josh Charles, Michael Rispoli and Jason Jones.
The documentary takes on meta-movie qualities as we see Baldwin putting on the makeup to simulate DeLorean’s plastic-surgeon-sculpted face, watching video interviews with DeLorean while he’s in the makeup chair and commenting on motivation, the inner life an actor imagines when he’s working on a character.
Baldwin picks up on the reserve, the native cunning in DeLorean’s gaze, and puts his own subdued and subtle touches in the character, not seeing him as “history” sees him.
“You go ‘No no no no, he’s a HERO.’ You have to play who he thinks he is.'”
Baldwin chuckles on Facetime with his wife in makeup, notes he married somebody even younger than DeLorean did and declares, “I GET this.”
It’s no wonder the filmmakers let Baldwin direct himself, more or less, in these scenes. We see Baldwin act, and see him prep to play a scene in many cases, choosing camera angles for dramatic effect, etc.
And amidst all the producers who were going to make a movie about DeLorean, and Bob Gale, the co-writer and producer of “Back to the Future,” “Framing John DeLorean’s screenwriter — in essence — is another interviewee. Zach DeLorean is the salty, salt-of-the-Earth adopted son of John DeLorean, and he shows up to strip away the mystique (about the man, the father and the “damned car”). He narrates the structure a “movie about my dad” should take, more importantly how it should end.
Joyce and Argott briskly track Detroit-native DeLorean’s rise, skipping his early Packard years to nail down the day he gave the edict to designer Bill Collins (seen in the film, and played by Josh Charles in reenactments) to put a bigger motor in the ’64 Pontiac Tempest, launching the Muscle Car craze that lasted through the Arab Oil Embargo a decade later.
We hear how DeLorean, bound for the presidency of the World’s Largest Company (General Motors) criticized his way out of the job by pointing out how GM needed to adapt to fight the smaller, more economical and better-built VWs and Toyotas that flooded the country in the Oil Embargo ’70s.
And we meet government officials and assembly line workers from Northern Ireland where DeLorean gambled and took incentive money to built the sleek, futuristic stainless steel DMC 12 sports car that bore his name.
“John was the biggest hero in Northern Ireland” the day the first cars rolled off that assembly line in war-torn Belfast, Protestants and Catholics, proudly working together on — let’s face it — the coolest car of its age.
But the car had engineering issues and build quality problems. Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain and pulled the plug on incentives that were actually helping keep the peace. And then the Reagan Recession hit.
There was no time and no money to ride it out, get the car sorted and get sales back up, something DeLorean was mysteriously slow to get a handle on. Desperation set in, a “confidential informant” (played by Rispoli) had a mark.
“Framing John DeLorean” has a classic story arc that, thanks to the character it’s based on, is problematic. Although we see footage of an ’80s documentary celebrating the man and the Belfast car company directed by doc legends Chris Hegedus and Don “D.A.” Pennebaker, we know now what they didn’t then. He’s not heroic, not really anti-heroic either. He’s the Gordon Gekko of car builders — a creature of the “Greed is Good” era.
But Baldwin lets us see glimpses of a movie that might be — on cable or streaming, a mini-series of “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” style. Baldwin gets the tall, ungainly gait down and the makeup looks like that of a vain, egotistical “winner” who’d had work done to give him that profile.
One producer of an abandoned film project notes, “If it hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t dare make it up.”
And screen veteran Bob Gale, his fondness for the subject warmed by the glories of “Back to the Future,” all but predicts the path the story will take when it finally does become a movie. He quotes John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a newspaperman in that classic Western said.
Whatever the facts, Gale knows just how Hollywood will immortalize the man the way “Back to the Future” immortalized the car.
“We print the legend.”
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles, Dean Winters, Michael Rispoli
Credits: Directed by Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce, scripted by Dan Greeney, Alexandra Orton. An IFC/Sundance Selects release.
Running time: 1:44