Framing John DeLorean
It’s a three-fer: biopic drama, documentary and the-making-of all rolled into one.
Before you continue: this essay contains spoilers. Framing John Delorean is skilled filmmaking and — for all but the most ardent students of the man, the car or both — the film contains some plot twists you likely won’t see coming. If you are not one of those ardent students, I urge you to see the film first, after which I would love to have you as a reader or listener. ~TCG
Three cars were most likely to adorn an adolescent boy’s room in the early 1980s. The first was the brutish Porsche Turbo Carrera with its outlandish fender flairs and whale tail. The second was the Lamborghini Countach which, in its original and purest form, was a single, hard-chined arc from nose to tail. The third was the DeLorean. It might have had a model name but nobody knew what it was. With its unique stainless steel body and gull-wing doors, the car was unmistakable. It was the Potemkin-esque ‘concept car’ you glimpsed at the auto show, but made real and available soon on a lot near you. For a time, the public couldn’t get enough of it.
The new film, Framing John Delorean directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, does much to capture the essence of that testosterone-fuelled obsession, although it is mostly relegated to a footnote to the bigger story arc. The film is virtually devoid of technical details which will disappoint those who pay for a ticket thinking there is going to be some new, minute detail proffered for the enthusiasts’ disection. The film is a Shakespearean tragedy in which the central character, while brilliant, charasmatic and attractive, is deeply and fatally flawed. We think we know the story, but it turns out we really don’t. Framing John Delorean will leave viewers first saddened by what might have been, and then disgusted by what actually was.
In the exactly one screening at exactly one theatre here in Calgary, the audience was launched directly into the film — no Coming Soon trailers and no long form TV commercials beforehand. Last minute concession-goers be forewarned. The quick start could well be at the request of the filmmakers, because it will take the audience a few minutes to figure out they’re not watching a trailer for the film as opposed to the film itself — the surprise start enhances the effect. The structure of Framing John Delorean is what trips up the audience: it is a combination of richly rendered feature film biopic starring Alec Baldwin, a Burnsian documentary about John DeLorean and to a lesser degree his eponymous car, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of both. It’s jarring at first but actually makes sense given it is a metaphor for the man himself. Even 14 years after his death at age 80, it’s still difficult to figure out what part of John DeLorean was real and what part was illusion.
Born in 1925 to a Romanian father and Hungarian mother in Detroit, Michigan, John Zachary DeLorean was the eldest of four boys. His parents were of modest means and sent John to Detroit public schools. As an honour student in high school, he earned a scholarship to the Lawrence Institute of Technology for his undergraduate degree. He then moved to the Chrysler Institute of Engineering and earned a master’s degree. He then predictably joined Chrysler where he lasted a scant year. He was lured away by a pay bump at Packard, where DeLorean eventually became head of the company’s research and development group. His outstanding work there attracted the attention of General Motors which, in 1956, offered him whatever job he wanted in any one of five GM divisions. He finally settled on assistant to the chief engineer for Pontiac. By 1961, he had achieved the position of chief engineer for that division. When he still was just 40 years old, DeLorean was made Pontiac’s division head — the youngest for any GM division ever. With a string of product successes at Pontiac, in 1969 John DeLorean was promoted yet again, this time to head GM’s flagship Chevrolet division.
This was still the heyday of General Motors in Detroit and John DeLorean was making a bundle. So much, in fact, he could afford to make investments in the New York Yankees and the San Diego Chargers — truly the territory of corporate high flyers and high flyer wannabes which DeLorean certainly was. His dashing, leading man appearance and unconventional approach to his work at GM gained him notice in popular culture. He counted amongst his friends late night legend Johnny Carson, for example. That growing fame, however, was also the cause of growing friction with his bosses at GM who were still paragons of white male corporate conservatism.
DeLorean’s rapid rise through GM is illuminated by the filmmakers in one of the lengthier, fully scripted scenes where DeLorean, played impeccably by Baldwin, is pitching an unrecognizably revamped Pontiac to the sales organization. He is proposing to give the car the name GTO. DeLorean had swiped the name from Italian carmaker Ferrari even though he knew its meaning — that is, a touring car certified for racing — didn’t really apply to the Pontiac in his pitch. No matter, it created the right illusion with potential buyers, Baldwin’s version of DeLorean implies. The scripted DeLorean takes the sales department for bumpkins when their initial reaction is ‘what the hell is this?’ They also wildly differ with DeLorean on the number they could possibly sell. 40,000 in the cinematic DeLorean’s estimation. More like 5,000 according to the sales team in the scene. DeLorean reacts with predictable and barely restrained disdain. For the Alec Baldwin version of DeLorean, at least, the seeds of discontent are irretrievably sown.
The real DeLorean continued to rack up product successes and in 1972 was once again promoted, this time to vice president of car and truck production for all of General Motors. DeLorean was on track to be the president of the company. Although already a wealthy man at just 47, a decade or so at the helm of GM would virtually guarantee John DeLorean would be able to live the lavish lifestyle he clearly enjoyed for the rest of his days and then some. All he had to do was put in the time and not run too far outside the guardrails of GM corporate culture.
Then, in April of 1973, just when everything about his career appeared to be a pre-ordained success, John DeLorean was suddenly fired from GM.
If you weren’t one of those adolescent boys with a picture of his car posted up in your bedroom, or even aware of the car at all except maybe in that movie Back to the Future, there is still a good chance you know John DeLorean’s name from somewhere. If not his name, then the grainy FBI surveillance video of some 1980s corporate bigwig getting busted with an open suitcase of cocaine while joking ‘it was more valuable than gold.’ That was John DeLorean. The images quickly became symbolic of the corporate excess which was re-emerging in the United States of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Inevitably, the federal agents marched in and the stunned DeLorean is snapped into handcuffs and unceremoniously hauled away. He would soon re-appear — this time on better quality video — being marched in and out of jails and courtrooms for the next two years. The hotel cocaine bust is meticulously recreated in Framing John DeLorean and then carefully integrated with the original footage from October of 1982. It’s a visual treat that makes the drama seem more real than the actual event.
John DeLorean’s arrest was utterly stunning at the time. While the troubles of his DeLorean Motor Company were well known when he was arrested, virtually no one would have figured it would all end in a grubby hotel room near Los Angeles International Airport. First amongst the stunned were DeLorean’s wife at the time, high profile supermodel Christina Ferrare, his adopted son Zachary and the couple’s daughter Kathryn. The filmmakers managed to track down both Zach and Kathryn and intercut documentary interview segments into the film. Both of DeLorean’s kids are emphatic they had no clue their father’s arrest was coming or even remotely imaginable for that matter. Kathryn seems to have eventually gotten over and made peace with it. Zach, clearly, still hasn’t. In fact, it appears to have ruined his life and he telegraphs seething resentment for his father even all these years after his death. The screen time spent with Zach is some of the most compelling, and heartbreaking, of Framing John DeLorean. Adult Zach’s reaction to seeing and then sitting in a immaculately preserved example of his dad’s car is particularly poignant and provides the first major plot twist of the film.
When John DeLorean was fired from GM, both he and his former employer would dress it up as a resignation. John’s sharp criticism of GM after his departure made it look, as time went by, more like a bitter divorce than an amicable parting of the ways. His most sharp criticism was reserved for the bland cars GM was producing in a race to the bottom slowed only with generous rebate programs to move the tepid cars off the lot. In the end, the cars John DeLorean wanted to build, and arguably the public wanted to buy, were just not GM’s thing back then. John was run off the property so GM could make their boring cars without all of the drama accompanying their mercurial former employee.
Whether it was John DeLorean’s desire to simply build exciting cars he believed the public wanted or, instead, vengefully prove the numbskulls at GM wrong is hard to know. However, almost before the ink was dry on his generous severance package, DeLorean had formed his new car company and had headhunted top flight GM technical talent, such as Bill Collins, to help DeLorean realize his dream. The rollout of the DMC-12, as it was actually called, was held to much fanfare and greeted with much genuine excitement. Here was a car that looked like those poster-worthy European exoticars, but designed and built in the good old USA, or so it was assumed. However, it was a very early prototype of the car which would eventually end up on all those adolescents’ bedroom walls. But even in the model name DeLorean had chosen for the car, there was a manipulation of the public’s perception. In choosing to include -12 onlookers could easily think it was the 12th in the series of design iterations. That would have been totally expected for a car of such technical ambition. It actually represented 12,000. As in dollars, that is, for which the car was supposed to sell, but never did. Even in its short history to that point, the DeLorean DMC-12 was more illusion than reality.
DeLorean may have been a wealthy man when he departed GM, but only in the sense of being able to afford a lavish New York lifestyle and all the trinkets of the nouveau riche. Starting a car company was an entirely different matter. It soon became apparent that more money than even John DeLorean had was going to be required as the car moved from pipe dream to production. There is a great scene in Framing John DeLorean which asserts the carmaker’s naivety about the realities of funding such an enterprise. The character Bill Collins, played by Josh Charles, asks whether DeLorean actually has the money to fund the development of such an innovative car. The concern is quickly and dismissively brushed off by DeLorean as played by Baldwin. It’s the filmmakers’ speculation, of course, but it has the ring of truth as events on the horizon would soon substantiate.
It’s delicious gossip to speculate whether there was a dimly lit room somewhere and in which a faceless cabal of Detroit carmakers actively conspired to keep their problem child out of the car business. Maybe. The last person to try it, Preston Tucker in 1948, had faced similar challenges and was eventually hurled out of the car business as a result of a dubious Securities and Exchange Commission case which the government eventually lost. It didn’t matter. By the time of his exoneration, Tucker was flat broke after producing a relative handful of what turned out to be really neat cars. DeLorean may have been up against the same invisible hand, albeit operating in quite a different way. This time, rather than immediately asserting criminality, it may have simply kept him from raising the massive amount of money necessary to get his nascent car company properly off the ground.
DeLorean must have thought salvation was at hand when he struck a deal with the govenment of then Prime Minister James Callaghan of the United Kingdom. They were prepared to throw money at DeLorean with just one small catch. He had to build the cars in Northern Ireland which at the time was enduring ‘The Troubles’—near civil war by another name. Unemployment was through the roof and Callaghan must have thought he had picked a winner when DeLorean agreed to build his car plant in Dunmurry, a gritty suburb of Belfast. In another documentary segment of Framing John DeLorean, those who had actually worked at the DeLorean plant back then are interviewed and, again, it makes for some of the most compelling moments of the film. The plant workers were both the true heroes and innocent victims in the John DeLorean story, which provides still more thoughts of what might have been, if only.
By May of 1979 the generous-with-the-public-purse Callaghan goverment was gone, replaced by the acerbic Margaret Thatcher. She was having none of the DeLorean claptrap. While it didn’t happen immediately, by February of 1982 the Thatcher government had taken a series of steps which resulted in DeLorean’s Irish factory being placed into receivership. Also contributing to its demise was that in every way other than the glorious Giugiaro design and its stainless rendering, the DeLorean was a thoroughly horrible car. In the 1983 book Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. DeLorean, the authors describe initial production units arriving in the United States as having interiors which ‘looked like a bomb had gone off’.
Which brings us back to that dingy hotel room in 1982. After the British government curtailed any further investment, John DeLorean needed lots of cash — and quickly — and a drug deal seemed to be one way to do it. The DeLorean Motor Company was the founder’s life’s work and it begs the question what lengths he might have incrementally slipped towards in an effort to save it. The audience of Framing John DeLorean is given the impression that while it’s in no way justifiable, it is at least understandable the hapless carmaker would find himself in those unhappy circumstances. More so by the fact that DeLorean eventually beat the drug trafficking charges in August of 1984 after his defence mounted a credible case for entrapment. This was a time not that long after Watergate, during which the public’s faith in government had been severely tested. Could ambitious FBI agents in combination with an ambitious district attorney have found somebody down on his luck, desperate for cash, and tempt him into doing something he might not otherwise have done? It was at least possible, and the results in court reflected that zeitgeist.
Beyond not having to do hard time for a federal crime, DeLorean lost everything. The motor company was gone. Christina Ferrare filed for divorce immediately following the conclusion of the trial. His kids disowned him for many years. It was over, other than he was still alive to fight another day if not to also spend those days wondering what might have been.
It’s at this point, the audience really expects the filmmakers of Framing John DeLorean to roll the credits. “That was quite a life”, the audience might have said, “what a strange, tragic ride.”
But then, the forensic accountant comes in, first as a voiceover, and then proceeds to explain that the British government was so lavish with its generosity in attempting to woo John DeLorean to Northern Ireland, they had actually given him more money than he needed. The relatively small amount of capital DeLorean had been able to raise on his own — an amount around $17 million dollars — had disappeared into a weird third-party company in some sort of questionable arrangement with Formula One legend Colin Chapman, who DeLorean had mysteriously pushed Bill Collins aside to hire. It turns out it was scam corporate vehicle where in some manner Chapman and DeLorean embezzled the $17 million of investors’ money and kept it for themselves. It’s a jaw dropping moment and there was an audible gasp in the theatre. It’s almost exactly the amount of money DeLorean was trying to raise with the drug deal. If he hadn’t stolen that investors money, we can’t help but conclude, there would have been no need for a drug deal in the first place.
“So, he was really just a creep, then?”
That’s the question the filmmakers leave the audience to ponder. Framing John DeLorean does an exquisite job of telling this remarkable story and doing so in a unique way. Besides, it’s tremendous value for the money as it’s really three films in one. It’s ironic that many would have happily paid full price to see any one of them.
©2019 Terence C. Gannon