Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 03, 2019 6:02 pm 
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An over-elaborate documentary about an already very complicated man

"Reenactments" in documentaries seem on the rise and they are a needless distraction. There are reports today of an elaborate model of the 1973 Alcali "sex raft," manned by a crew of actors, for a non-fiction film coming out next week. In Framing John DeLorean one learns a great deal about this famous entrepreneur of the American auto world, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, still much admired though long disgraced. Unfortunately my strongest memory of this film is Alec Baldwin being fitted with makeup, fluffy gray wig, and fake black eyebrows to reenact scenes of DeLorean's life. Even though DeLorean himself once said he wanted Baldwin to play him, they still don't look that much alike. There is a kind of creepy overreaching in doc reenactments. Argott ( The Art of the Steal) and Joyce have still made an interesting film. The story speaks for itself. They just didn't need to try so hard. (The title, like "Art of the Steal," shows Argott's penchant for side-taking, though any lining up with John DeLorean must be done with reservations.)

Baldwin pops up frequently throughout the film, which consists of narration, talking heads, grainy black and white FBI surveillance footage and sound tapes, numerous stills and some film of the real DeLorean in action, a slimmer and handsomer man than the actor chosen to play him. The car exec worked at his glamorous image as he became more successful and more known, wearing better suits and having plastic surgery to strengthen his chin line. Baldwin not only is seen suiting up, but talking about both his impersonation and the complexity of DeLorean's story, in Owen Gleiberman's words in his Variety review of this film, "as if he were a Method psychoanalyst digging his way into the meaning of DeLorean’s life and actions." Maybe it is most enlightening to hear from DeLorean himself, who as Allen Hunter's Screen Daily review says, was ever a "persuasive advocate of his own greatness, the hero of his own narrative."

To the knowing eye these reenactments and the jazzed-up shots of stills show the filmmakers didn't think they had lively enough raw material. Clearly they were wrong. This third-wall commentary and play-acting are a needless interruption, the effort to be meta is overreaching, but the story gets through anyway. This is a story that mixes Steve Jobs with Gordon Gekko, but different because DeLorean wasn't so much greedy or a ruthless promoter as a man obsessed. "A dream of success that became a nightmare. A golden boy turned prince of darkness. Name your grandiose American metaphor," says Gleiberman in his Variety review.

Most of the story is known, but may have faded from living memory, and all that's left is the rakish Seventies-style stainless steel car with its dramatic gull-wing doors. Right away we are reminded of the ugly secret. DeLorean was brought down by an FBI sting that caught him trying to engage in a big cocaine deal that would have multiplied his money twenty- or forty-fold. The government lost the case in a jury trial. But DeLorean's reputation was forever tarnished. His Belfast factory, in severe financial difficulty, had to close. Irish workers interviewed here say they were devastated, that their jobs there were the best they ever had, that the factory magically united Catholics and Protestants in harmony during a time of great hostility outside. The day the plant closed, the workers on screen say, was the "worst day" of their lives.

The post-sting debacle was terrible for the workers, and for DeLorean's family. His wife quickly left him after the trial ended. His adopted son Zach and daughter Kathryn were marked by the scandal for life. The film has interviews with both. It also has someone to play DeLorean's top-model spouse Cristina Ferrare, who was 25 years younger. DeLorean's son Zach, interviewed in the shabby little apartment where he lives, is a lost soul, but the most colorful figure in the film. His vivid talk laced with many "fuckin's" turns out to be a nicer contrasting perspective than Alec Baldwin's. Kathryn, who says her father's downfall "destroyed" her childhood, describes a turn-around in her estrangement when as an adult she prevailed on her father to attend car events with her, where he could, as she puts it, "bask in glory," learning how much he was still admired.

John DeLorean rose to the 14th floor management level of General Motors. He defied the bureaucrats with his souped up Pontiac GTO and created the "muscle car." He was the youngest division head in GM history when he broke away to create his own car company. The film points out how hard it is to do this. Nevertheless, DeLorean got a car design (with an Italian body designer) and had a longtime ally in GM exec Bill Collins. (We hear from Collins, but there is also another actor to play him for the reenactments, Josh Charles, wasted and barely seen.) A search for a location led him to war-torn Belfast. An alliance with Lotus Cars' Colin Chapman, who helped him get UK government funding, and this arrangement led DeLorean to simply abandon Collins and his Stateside alliance.

The first 3,500 DeLoreans to come to the US had lots of glitches (operation of the fancy doors was one), but DeLorean, instead of slowing down, chose to accelerate production - and seek more UK government funds. Unfortunately, at this point, Margaret Thatcher came in, and ended that funding. This led to the financial desperation and the 100-kilo cocaine scheme. This was the end of the DeLorean car and of DeLorean's reputation.

Despite its needless efforts to embellish its story with meta commentary and artistry, it can do the nuts-and-bolts documentary thing perfectly well. It explains very clearly the FBI sting and how the court case went, why the government lost; we hear from the defense lawyer. We also learn the cocaine deal wasn't DeLorean's only devious behavior, that he also plotted with Lotus boss Colin chapman to collect $17 million from private investors in addition to the $17 million they collected from the UK government, which they set up with GPD, a dummy company in Geneva. DeLorean faked documents - his daughter saw him faux-aging them, we learn - to cover up this deal. This too is public knowledge, if forgotten: we see a remarkable excerpt of the Mike Douglas Show where he confronts DeLorean with his devious dealing.

Perhaps it's no surprise that DeLorean became a born-again Christian. It's all part of the multi-faceted, good-bad guy story. He had to give up his mansion and estate. The property became a golf club now owned by Donald Trump. There's irony in that. John DeLorean was a slick scoundrel, but also a remarkable man. He could have become the head of General Motors. Instead he pursued a wild dream of a glamorous consumer grade innovative sports car. His daughter tells how he kept the dream he had of reviving his car company through his declining years, age 60 to 80, hoping to revive the design team. The hope is expressed that when he died of a heart attack, he was still dreaming. The man was deeply flawed, but he was awesome.

Of course the DeLorean car's apotheosis and eternal record lies in it's iconic use in Robert Zemeckis' 1985 classic movie Back to the Future.

This film is produced by, among others, Tamir Ardon, a DeLorean buff, who speaks throughout the film about details of the man's life.

Framing John DeLorean, 109 mins., debuted at Tribeca April 30, 2019, also showed at Hot Docs and Montclair. It released online June 7, 2019.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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