Visual art review: Duncan Campbell: Make It New John

Duncan Campbell: Make It New JohnTramway, Glasgow

IT WAS portrayed as the sports car of the future and ultimately starred in the movie Back To The Future. With its extraordinary gull-wing doors, the DeLorean DMC-12 was meant to signify the American dreams of speed, freedom and modernity. But, as footage of the time reveals, you could bump your head far too easily on exit.

In reality the encounter with John DeLorean's dream machine left Northern Irish workers and public funds with far more than bruising. An enterprise that once boasted it would bring up to 35,000 jobs to the region collapsed amid acrimony in 1982.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In the week of Kraft's takeover of Cadbury, Duncan Campbell's film about the debacle reminds us that the dance of international capital, desperate governments and anxious workforces is nothing new.

In a culture increasingly wracked by nostalgia for the 1980s, this movie makes Northern Ireland in the early Thatcherite era a place you don't want to revisit. From a young David Trimble at his most entrenched to the near-colonial visits of passing dignitaries and ministers such as Jim Prior on a visit to the factory floor, describing it as "the happiest car factory he had ever visited", the dignified desperation of the Belfast workforce and the frequently obsequious media, the DeLorean disaster is both a product of its time and place and a universal story.

Campbell fuses reportage, drama, stock and archive footage to re-imagine the DeLorean story in all its archetypal dimensions. Within the 50-minute film there's an impressionistic Freudian drama about a man who outgrows his immigrant father, his paternalist corporation and his fatherland but is ultimately destroyed by his own hubris. There's a social documentary in the cinema verit style, a straightforward Shakespearean tragedy and a slice of agit-prop theatre.

DeLorean's public pronouncements form the film's core, an endless round of pieces to camera, a rush of microphones every time the former General Motors man steps out of a crisis meeting. He begins looking like Cary Grant, a beautifully dressed, greying matinee idol, whose gorgeous girlfriend dabs his face with a handkerchief before a PR excursion. By the end he bears a close resemblance to the cadaverous Christopher Lee. If his crisp shirts are invariable immaculate, the hair and the astonishing nose seem to undergo transformations of their own. We finally glimpse him at an airport check-in, Gucci wallet in hand as he boards Concorde, heading home to California for, implicitly, the last time.

While this is a film about oil and labour, about the complex politics of both Northern Ireland and Opec, ultimately Make It New John is about masculinity, its media portrayal and the limited stock of stories and style we can draw on to explore it. From sand and surf California to the factory gates of Dunmurry, the records are always incomplete, the images half-constructed, full of gaps and hiatuses, open to media myth-making and local storytelling.

Dublin-born Campbell, who lives in Glasgow, has made a series of recent films exploring the possibilities and limits of reportage and documentary in both still and moving imagery, as well as a parallel series of rigorous examinations of film and drama, taking their cue from Beckett.

In Make It New John, the key dramatic device is the play within the play, a closing sequence in which a group of actors portray workers at the car plant under an inquisition from a behind-camera English journalist. Her increasingly personal questions suggest that beneath the politics of labour lie simple human needs such as warmth, companionship and sustenance. The script is drawn from archives, the staging self-conscious. Whether this represents an untold narrative that Campbell truly wishes to mine or a pastiche of the kind of realist dramas that were a feature of the oppositional Thatcherite years remains open to question.

If both this sequence and the overall Shakespearean dimensions of the film can falter at times – not least because we arrive already knowing DeLorean as a pantomime villain – Campbell's decision to steer his material according to such archetypes is no matter of chance.

His last film, Bernadette, somehow portrayed the political activist Bernadette Devlin as an incandescent Joan of Arc, without ever becoming a hagiography. It was always going to be hard to follow Bernadette, a film I rate as one of the best art works produced in this country in the past few years. Make it New John nevertheless confirms that Campbell is an artist of great reach, thoughtfulness and self-reflection.

Until 14 March

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010