Film Review: “Framing John DeLorean” Is a Fascinating Hybrid Look at Hubris and Its Consequences

Film poster: “Framing John DeLorean”

Framing John DeLorean (Don Argott/Sheena M. Joyce, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.

A fascinating amalgam of archival footage, modern-day talking-head interviews and dramatized reenactments, Framing John DeLorean chronicles the rise and fall of the once-renowned titular automobile executive who leant his name to the stainless-steel car made forever famous by the Back to the Future films. Jam-packed with facts about the man, his achievements and misdeeds, the (mostly) documentary creates a comprehensive portrait of a singular figure. Its mere existence is an achievement in and of itself, given how a fair number of previous filmmakers (many of them interviewed here) have, apparently, tried to tackle this subject before. Kudos, then, to directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (Batman & Bill) for pulling it together and delivering this wild romp of a movie.

Alec Baldwin (Blind) plays DeLorean in the recreations, and though sometimes his makeup works and sometimes it doesn’t, it’s in the moments where we see behind the scenes of the shoots, the actor musing on the real man’s motivations, that this device succeeds best. In addition, there are some truly brilliant touches that Argott and Joyce employ in their stitching together of the actual surveillance video of DeLorean’s 1982 drug bust and the reenactments that reveal the power of such a technique. And then there are the gripping interviews with DeLorean’s two children, adopted son Zach and biological daughter Kathryn, each of whom walks us through the traumatic events of their childhood, lending personal perspectives to the more clinical ones of historians and experts who take up the rest of the space.

Alec Baldwin behind stage for ballroom scene with slate clap in FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN. Courtesy of NICOLE RIVELLI Photographie. A Sundance Selects Release.

I was unfamiliar with the details of DeLorean’s story, beyond his invention of that signature vehicle, even though I was alive while the bad stuff hit the fan. All I remember is that there was this futuristic-looking car, and then nothing more, beyond its important role in a cool series. Argott and Joyce lay it all out with precision and clarity. For a while a rising star at General Motors, DeLorean angered his bosses with a fast lifestyle and arrogant demeanor. When they fired him in the early 1970s, he decided to take them on with an (ostensibly) affordable muscle car that could last up to 25 years (hence the stainless steel). The design rollout was a hit, but then DeLorean got greedy, cutting ties to early collaborators and moving operations to Northern Ireland to take advantage of British-government subsidies and a shady collaboration with Colin Chapman of Lotus. When money troubles threatened the company, DeLorean allowed himself to be talked into a cocaine-selling scheme to earn a quick buck. Turns out it was a setup by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Whoops.

Though DeLorean beat that rap, his reputation never recovered, and from then until his death in 2005 (he was born in 1925), his fortunes continued to diminish. Framing John DeLorean therefore has it all, including glamor, crime and a fabulously hubristic downfall. Beyond the staged sequences, Argott and Joyce present the rest of the material in nicely stylized fashion, moving the story along at a brisk clip. There’s quite a lot of substance to accompany the flash, and one emerges from the film’s 109 minutes well informed and highly entertained.

Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin and Josh Charles on stage in front on DMC prototype. Courtesy of NICOLE RIVELLI Photographie. A Sundance Selects Release.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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