by Kenny Hedges
The most famous, and arguably accurate, portrayal of cocaine in cinema comes at the height of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, when a disheveled, coked-out Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) hurries through a busy, crime-filled afternoon while balancing traffic, potential FBI helicopters and a complicated Italian dinner. It’s a nonstop, frenetically edited thrill, to the cinefile as effective as the drug itself, and it perfectly depicts what it’s like to be in a fervor.
Cocaine, as it’s been said, is a helluva drug, and there’s a reason it was such a hit with the wealthy and elite in the 80s. The entire spirit of the decade’s exhausting, scandal-ridden, fashion–obsessed Brett Easton Ellis nightmare can be packaged in a tiny white plastic bag or glass vial.
And the decade kicked off with two notable crimes that clearly labelled the drug public enemy number one in the mind of Reaganites: the arrest and death of pilot Barry Seal and the arrest of John DeLorean.
Seal’s story was dramatised in the highly fictional American Made, and now DeLorean’s got his turn with Mann’s Driven. But in a film that involves luxury cars and designer drugs, it’s somewhat astonishing how little of it actually focuses on those aspects.
That is Driven’s ultimate failing; it’s focused on the less-interesting story, and it oddly changes the facts around in ways that make its case weaker.
Driven first introduces DeLorean (Lee Pace) coming across his new neighbour Jim Hoffman’s (Jason Sudeikis) GM. Hoffman has recently been busted trying to run cocaine across the border using his plane, and is working his way to clear his name as an FBI informant to bring down his dealer. As he develops a sincere friendship with DeLorean, he also starts to realize he has a much bigger fish to hand his employers that can also serve as a payday.
The case against DeLorean, or lack thereof, has been well-documented, but it’s verdict has fallen by the wayside. DeLorean, beyond serving as the basis for the butt of every Back to the Future joke, hasn’t really gotten exposure beyond the disastrous launch of his car and his court case. Driven stops short of all but vindicating him.
And there’s not much to vindicate. It’s true that, prior to his celebrity as an eccentric car designer and arrest, he was seen as a visionary whose tell all about GM was a best seller. It’s also true that he struggled for years after his not guilty verdict to regain his legacy and create a monorail in the 90s. But his business practices before his arrest were already suspect, and though Hoffman has since admitted he essentially worked to entrap the car designer, DeLorean did not hesitate to participate.
In the age of Donald Trump, it appears, the business con man can be the protagonist. For despite all of DeLorean’s failings that the film points out (most are minor things that point to larger character faults such as cheating at chess while claiming to be a Grandmaster), Driven sees him a flawed, maybe even tragic, hero.
“History will be written by the victors,” DeLorean says variations of this old maxim repeatedly. He steadfastly believes that despite all his mistruths, fabrications and willingness to work hand-in-hand with the dregs of society – and Driven goes out of its way to make its criminal element as seedy as possible – his ultimate goal is worthy. At the least the film has the hindsight to note that the DeLorean was a stupendously shittily produced car. It seems angrier about that and the conduct of the FBI than DeLorean’s own delusions of grandeur. If only it had the wherewithal to go after its subject with the same kind of hate as it did his wheels.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t offer more insight into his motivations. We’re meant to understand that cars and namesakes and things supposedly important to men (especially stories about working on cars with their dad’s) are enough drive for characters. This is particularly odd, when you have another culprit for excess and bravado right in front of you in powder form.
Instead, drugs are more of an aside. There’s no indication, in the film or the limited research done, that DeLorean was the coke freak late night shows made a meal out of at the time (the actual FBI entrapment tape, in which he mentions that holding a bag of drugs is “lighter than gold”, sounds like genuine surprise rather than a man who knows his way around Bolivia). And the film’s strict adherence to the facts of the arrest prevent it from having the fun necessary to extrapolate on the many directions the words “cocaine” and “fast cars” can lead a script.
Which is a shame, because the cast is more than game for it. Sudeikis is all nervous, SNL energy just waiting to explode and Pace is a simmering enigma full of contradiction. Supporting them is a wasted Judy Greer in a thankless wife role that she still manages to inject with some spirit and Corey Stoll as a constantly pissed off FBI agent. But whenever these characters are about to come to life, they have to stick to reality.
But the reality of the film, which states that Hoffman and DeLorean had a sincere friendship, of which there is no indication. So the one lie the film builds itself on is the one that ultimately prevents it from being a much more exciting film.
If it were that other film, however, one might prefer another crew behind it, preferably one with some understanding of narcotics. An embarrassingly long sequence of the film (the only in which any narcotics are shown used, by the way) involves several characters snorting powder laced with angel dust, but the way the characters respond to chemicals is about as accurate to a layman as Reefer Madness. It’s a far cry from Goodfellas.
As a procedural, there are some things about Hamm’s film that work very well. But with a title and a premise like Driven, set in the fast-paced, male-dominated world of cars and drugs, it’s just not the film it should be.
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