2019 has seen no shortage of documentaries about the rise and self-destruction of so-called American geniuses. Two of the highest profile docs so far this year were Hulu and Netflix’s dueling films about the 2017 Fyre Festival, both of which were just as much about its founder—the notoriously charismatic and sociopathic fraudster Billy McFarland—as they were about the doomed music festival. Likewise, two of the docs premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival are about similar forces of personality who wooed the world with their brilliance before collapsing in on themselves through a mixture of hubris, arrogance, and disastrous business decisions. The first, Frédéric Tcheng’s Halston, is an underwhelming look at the enfant terrible of 70s fashion in America, the eponymous Halston whose minimalistic, chic designs made him the toast of the New York fashion scene before his tyrannical personality and catastrophic choice to design a ready-to-wear franchise for J. C. Penney destroyed his credibility in high fashion and transformed him into a societal pariah before his tragic death of HIV/AIDS in 1990.
The second, a significantly more ambitious documentary, is Don Argott and Sheena Joyce’s Framing John DeLorean, a whirlwind look into the eponymous car engineer and businessman who became a media icon and celebrity on par with the conveyor belt of movie stars and supermodels he dated in the 70s and 80s. Today, most people who’ve heard of DeLorean only know him for his DeLorean sports car which was famously featured in the Back to the Future franchise. But few today remember him as the innovator who took on the world with a radical vision for the future of automobiles; a veritable Detroit Steve Jobs, he pioneered the muscle car by designing the very first, the Pontiac GTO, a high-performance luxury car aimed at the youth movement. Then, at the height of his fame, he formed his own company, set up a production plant in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, began pumping out the DMC DeLorean en masse, and saw it all blow up in his face when the Thatcher administration in England cut government funding from his factory. What happened next is the stuff go legend: a DEA informant came to the desperate, cash-strapped industrialist, offered to help fund his company with millions of dollars in cocaine money, and got him arrested in an FBI/DEA sting. John was found not guilty on all charges after arguing that the FBI and DEA entrapped him since technically it was their informant who talked him into it. But even after getting off scot free, his reputation was ruined.
The whole ordeal reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Hollywood took notice, attempting several times over the years to green-light biographies about John’s life. None of them ever came to fruition, until now. Framing John DeLorean isn’t just a talking heads documentary about an extraordinary man’s life, it’s also a meditation on fame and media notoriety, reflected in Argott and Joyce’s casting of Alec Baldwin to play John in several reenactments of his life. Baldwin, who talks extensively of his role and performance in behind-the-scenes moments where he puts on makeup and prosthetics, attacks the project with a gusto. (Amazingly, in one aside Baldwin reveals that John once contacted him shortly before his death and requested that he play him if one of the many scheduled biopics on his life ever got funding.) His inclusion adds a fascinating layer of self-reflectivity to an otherwise mediocre documentary, even if his performance threatens to overpower the rest of the film several times.