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In Northern Ireland, many still revere the automotive magnate John DeLorean as a local hero for situating his car factory in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, a time of extreme economic deprivation during which the influx of jobs came as a godsend. Others – his family, his personal confidantes, his colleagues, the FBI officials responsible for his eventual arrest – remember the business tycoon as a greedy, flagrantly unethical megalomaniac. The new miniseries Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean triangulates the truth in hiding somewhere between these two characterizations.
Conceived as a feature for the BBC, now expanded and split into three parts for streaming on Netflix, the biographical documentary takes stock of a man ensconced in ambiguity. (Those giddy about Back to the Future nostalgia, look elsewhere – a brief, obligatory name-check at the top of the first episode gets that out of the way with bigger fish to fry.) When he left a cushy position at General Motors to invent the car of the future, was he a free thinker chasing a noble dream, or a deluded narcissist obsessed with putting his name on a company? When he brought the nascent DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) to neighborhood of Dunmurry, was he expressing solidarity with a controversial cause, or simply capitalizing on a period of turbulent political instability? When he agreed to transport millions of dollars in cocaine for what turned out to be undercover agents, was he revealing himself to be a crook or falling victim to an unjust setup verging on entrapment?
Those were the major questions tackled by the pioneering non-fiction film-maker Chris Hegedus and her late partner, DA Pennebaker, when they set out to make a film of their own about DeLorean at the height of his controversy, through the 70s and 80s. Myth and Mogul repurposes some never-before-seen footage from that project, as well as candid interview segments with Hegedus about her front-row seat to the bizarre spectacle that was DeLorean’s life. “As we started to unpack DeLorean, particularly his childhood and early years on through to his deviousness in college, we started to see that traits coming out in his character later on had been part of his personality for a long time,” Jon-Barrie Waddell, executive producer, tells the Guardian. “Dissecting those in more detail, we saw there was another side to the corporate executive type he’d been portrayed as. He was a sort of master of illusion … Having access to this unseen material with Pennebaker and Hegedus showed something fresh about DeLorean the man.”
Waddell himself brought a valuable perspective to the table, with a boyhood spent around Belfast during the thick of the DeLorean years, making him uniquely attuned to the complicated legacy left behind. “My father worked at the ITV television station in Northern Ireland, and they invited DeLorean for the launch of the car in 1981,” he recalls. “He brought me along, as a kid, and that’s when I first connected with John DeLorean, seeing him 40 years ago. He’s remained a subject of interest ever since then, being a huge part of the early-80s industry in Northern Ireland … I was only 10 around the time, but I remember more about the car and its cultural significance rather than everything going on behind the scenes. But my father remained really interested in the project over the years. When he became an independent film-maker, he tried a couple times to make a film on DeLorean, and I became more and more aware of the core subject matter – the roller coaster of dynamics between DeLorean and the British government – as I came up through my teens and early 20s.”
The businessman cultivated a reputation as a prodigy, becoming the youngest member of the General Motors C-suite in the company’s history before throwing it all away to set out on his own. His bold, risk-taking concern would design, manufacture and distribute the next step in the automobile’s evolution, a sleek aerodynamic vehicle immediately setting itself apart with “gull-wing” doors that would flip up instead of opening out. Realizing this fantasy would naturally require money, DeLorean went on a world tour in search of a government willing to back him as a way of jump-starting the economy, and found that the British economic ministers were keen on reducing unemployment in Northern Ireland in the hopes that sectarian violence would fall with it. They footed aboutx $120m of the total $200m in start-up costs, a chunk of which the CEO would skim for himself. All the while, the fiery demonstrations continued, throwing a destructive wrench into DeLorean’s work.
“DeLorean has always been celebrated as a hero here in Northern Ireland for what he brought to the country at a time when the workers in west Belfast needed a promise of hope,” Waddell says. “That moment was all doom and gloom, and the DeLorean factory gave a picture of the future to the working class in the country. At the same time, he knew exactly what was going on, siphoning off money from his earliest days of collaboration with the British government. He’d use every trick of the trade to pull his wool over their eyes.”
Technical snafus gave way to delays on the assembly line, and it wasn’t long until the DMC was deep in debt. In need of a quick $17m to keep the lights on, DeLorean was exceptionally vulnerable when his former neighbor Jim Hoffman called him up with an offer that could solve all his problems: meet up with a couple guys at Los Angeles international Airport, get some product, make some cash. On grainy videotape, we watch DeLorean shake hands with the men who then slap the cuffs on his wrists, in an operation the perp would fight tooth and nail in court. Waddell shares DeLorean’s contention that the government had preyed on him for the simple reason that they knew his wallet was hurting. “When we were doing the analysis of the entrapment, I saw he was completely set up,” he says. “He would’ve gone to any lengths to save his company. He even had a deal in place with financiers that may have saved him, if he hadn’t gone down the cocaine route. It was his ego, his need to be in control, that led him into the FBI sting.”
Hubris comes to the fore as his defining quality, the confidence-drunk belief that he was untouchable – to the Irish bombers, the creditors and the law. “From his time in Detroit, he always saw the focus of his life’s story as being John DeLorean, not General Motors,” Waddell says. “He wanted to be center. He liked taking all the credit, most notably with the Belfast factory. He dismissed any staff that refused to toe that line, of his plans. Why do you think he named the car after himself? He had an enormous ego. His ex-wife described him as a ‘malignant narcissist’.”
That boundless pit of money hunger and unadulterated self-interest captures the relevance that this pocket of history still bears for a present day besotted by mad titan-of-industry ambition. Waddell traces a line from DeLorean to “the Richard Bransons of the world”, in particular the self-styled space cowboys Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. They’re all “driven by a dream”, he says, “but how far, and at what cost?” In the 80s, DeLorean’s arrogance cost him everything. For today’s billionaires, he’s a cautionary tale. For the record-keepers of Belfast, he’s a study in contradiction. For everyone else, he’s a schadenfreude-generating illustration of what happens when a person tries to grab too much and gets their hand caught in the jar.