2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Framing John DeLorean’

April 30, 2019

by Carla Hay

Framing John DeLorean
Alec Baldwin in “Framing John DeLorean” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Selects)

“Framing John DeLorean”

Directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 30, 2019.

The title of “Framing John DeLorean” has more than one meaning: It could mean the notorious 1984 trial where disgraced automobile mogul John DeLorean was accused of cocaine trafficking (he claimed that he was the target of a government set-up), or it could mean how DeLorean’s life story is framed in the context of this movie. The way that directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce tell the story combines the elements of a traditional documentary and a docudrama, with Alec Baldwin playing DeLorean.

Early on in the movie, it’s mentioned that there have been several failed attempts over the years to make the DeLorean story into a narrative feature film. “Framing John DeLorean” almost looks like another attempt to make that narrative feature film, but within this documentary. Not only does the movie use a lot of re-enactment footage with Baldwin and other actors, but “Framing John DeLorean” also shows the behind-the-scenes making of that re-enactment footage, such as Baldwin getting his prosthetics and makeup done, the crew preparing sets for filming, and the actors getting direction. In on-camera interviews, Baldwin also shares a lot of his thoughts about what he thinks of DeLorean, and even reveals that DeLorean (who died in 2005 at the age of 80) once personally called him to ask Baldwin to play him in one of the DeLorean biopics that ended up not getting made. In fact, Baldwin has so much screen time in this movie that it could have been subtitled “Featuring Alec Baldwin Giving His Take on DeLorean.”

Re-enactment footage is tricky to navigate in a documentary. It’s also a choice that has been divisive among documentarians; some don’t have a problem with re-enactment footage, while others think that using actors and scripted dialogue in a documentary undermines the integrity of the project. In the case of “Framing John DeLorean,” people will either love or hate the re-enactment footage, which can be distracting or can enhance the storytelling. How you personally feel about Baldwin will also affect how you feel about his prominent presence in the film.

As for the investigative journalism in the documentary, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of gathering archival footage that documents DeLorean’s rise to the top of the automotive industry to his fall from grace. He became a powerful executive at General Motors (GM)—where he helped develop the Pontiac GTO, among other famous cars—but his flamboyant, playboy lifestyle and public criticism of GM management led to his ouster from the company. In 1973, he founded the ill-fated DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) that lost millions in investment money through bad decisions and what the U.S. government later revealed was a Ponzi scheme cooked up by DeLorean. The disgraced mogul had legal issues for years over fraud investigations, and his finances never recovered. When DeLorean died in his modest New Jersey apartment, he was essentially broke.

“Framing John DeLorean” also has new interviews with past DeLorean associates, including William T. Collins, a former Pontiac engineer whom DeLorean recruited to be DMC’s chief engineer. (Josh Charles plays Collins in the re-enactment footage.) Collins, who quit DMC after he started to suspect that DeLorean was mishandling funds, is the person credited with designing the famous DeLorean sports car that was immortalized as a time machine in the “Back to the Future” films. (“Back to the Future” co-writer Bob Gale is interviewed in this documentary.) Former supermodel Cristina Ferrare, DeLorean’s third ex-wife, who was married to him from 1973 to 1985, is not interviewed in the movie, and has declined to publicly talk about DeLorean for years. Morena Baccarin of “Gotham” and “Deadpool” fame plays Ferrare in the re-enactment footage.

However, the film has revealing interviews with DeLorean’s adopted son Zack and daughter Kathryn (whose mother is Ferrare), who were pre-teen children at the time of their father’s scandal. The kids are a stark reminder of the collateral damage that DeLorean’s actions left on his family. The scruffy and sarcastic Zack (who looks like he’s down on his luck, based on his small, run-down apartment) is full of foul-mouthed bitterness and has mixed feelings about his legacy as a DeLorean. He says he loved his father but hates how his father’s greed ruined his family’s life. Zack talks about how people are surprised that he’s living barely above poverty level, and when he sees the famous DeLorean sports car, he doesn’t know how to describe how he feels, but it’s clear that it’s a mixture of pride and shame.

Kathryn seems to be coping better (emotionally and financially) with the aftermath of the scandal than her brother is. She says a lot of her healing came from getting therapy. Just like her brother, Kathryn went through some trauma. She recalls being bullied and ostracized for many years of her life simply because of who her father was. While Zack has lingering resentment over his family name, Kathryn seems to have come to terms with embracing her family name and forgiving her father. She talks about becoming involved in the DeLorean fan community, and she shares fond memories of bringing her father to a DeLorean fan convention that displayed DMC cars, and how the adulation he got at the show boosted his confidence. Kathryn also confirms that her mother doesn’t like to talk about DeLorean, even to her own kids, because she’s “moved on with her life.” (Ferrare went on to have a successful career as a TV host. In 1985, she married her current husband, TV executive Anthony Thomopoulos, and they have two daughters together.)

Although some people might complain that “Framing John DeLorean” doesn’t know whether it wants to be a documentary or a docudrama, in the end, the overall storytelling works in this movie, and it could serve as a useful resource if a biopic is ever made about DeLorean’s life.

IFC Films/Sundance Selects will release “Framing John DeLorean” in select U.S. theaters on June 7, 2019.