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FILM REVIEW: Finding Steve McQueen

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Director: Mark Steven Johnson 

We have heard a lot about America’s rust belt during the recent election campaign, but Ohio and Pennsylvania gleam brightly in Mark Steven Johnson’s representation of the region as it was 40-50 years ago. The film is a nostalgic heist movie, set against the backdrop of a crooked Republican president on his way to being booted out of office. There is much that still resonates today.

In 1980, Harry (Travis Fimmel), living contentedly in Deerwood, Pennsylvania, finally confesses to his long time girlfriend Molly (Rachael Taylor) about his involvement in a 1972 California bank robbery. In flashback, we see the bright, but accident-prone Harry in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, joining his Uncle Enzo (William Fichtner) in an audacious plot to relieve the bank of $30 million of “dirty money” stashed there by Richard M Nixon. It seems that, half a century ago, even presidents dealt only in cash. The film’s story is so preposterous that it comes as no surprise to be told that it is based on real events.

Fimmel has a vague resemblance to Steve McQueen, even if his Harry is less a king of cool than a king of tepid. Harry’s favourite film is Bullit and he drives his car around Youngstown in the manner of McQueen negotiating the streets of San Francisco. When the car goes up in flames, he bemoans the fact that he only stole it yesterday. Mounting a motorcycle, he immediately adopts McQueen’s pose in The Great Escape, adding to the plentiful references to classic movies. The screenplay by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon weaves real life and fantasy together skilfully, demonstrating the impact of popular culture on everyday existence.

The film’s overriding tone is one of light comedy, but touches of adventure and romance are blended in seamlessly and to considerable effect. The narrative has three distinct strands – the heist, the investigation into it and the relationship between Harry and Molly. Forest Whitaker brings a dash of Oscar-winning experience to a generally lesser known cast, giving a low-key performance as FBI Agent Lambert, a man who quietly accepts career advancement as a reward for his discretion with regard to the activities of the occupant of the Oval Office.

Finding Steve McQueen will not live in the memory for as long as the classics that it references, but it leaves us wanting more, particularly in developing minor characters. That said, its 91-minute running time is, on balance, just about right to keep the storytelling bubbling and the central performances, particularly those by Fimmel and Taylor, have genuine charm.

Released on 16 November 2020

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