Finding Steve McQueen (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the true story of the most expensive bank robbery in American history, “Finding Steve McQueen,” written by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon, starts off on the wrong foot. The lead actor, Travis Fimmel, playing Harry Barber whose personal hero is actor Steve McQueen, is so adamant in portraying the character as if he were in a slapstick comedy, his extreme facial expressions and body language distract more than entertain, annoying instead of charming or amusing. One considers the possibility of Fimmel having missed the memo that the picture is actually a light comedy with heist elements, not a sitcom destined to be cancelled after three episodes. Still, the picture is able to overcome this initial shortcoming eventually.
The work is divided into three timelines: before the robbery, the robbery itself, and the aftermath. Each portion is steadily paced despite not being presented in chronological order and so each one never wears out its welcome. It is established early on that the mood is supposed to be lighthearted and fun; the direction by Mark Steven Johnson maintains this feeling until the inevitable arrest of those who plotted to steal thirty million dollars of illicit presidential campaign contributions for President Nixon. The material is so good-hearted that we feel as though there is no villain in the story (with the exception of Nixon).
The leader of the pack, Rotella (William Fichtner), despises Nixon for his crimes against both the American people and humanity. To him, it is most critical that his crew steals from Nixon directly. We understand this character so thoroughly that we know that he would consider the job a failure even if they walked out with thirty million dollars should the money not have belonged to the president. His anger toward the man is pure and focused. Every time the name Nixon is broached, Rotella’s body stiffens a little, ready to attack. And this is why Rotella is the most interesting character of the bunch. Fichtner is perfect for the role.
Fimmel’s performance began to grow on me some time in the middle. The writing shows that Harry is not just about fast cars and emulating McQueen. There is substance to him, particularly in how he cares for those around him. Post-robbery, the focus is on Harry confessing to his girlfriend (Rachael Taylor) that the FBI is on his tracks for the notorious bank robbery. The flashbacks involving the two meeting and getting to know each other command a good enough realism for us to be able to invest in the relationship despite the fact that we know that Harry and Molly would end up in a diner, the latter questioning whether what they had was in fact ever real.
Another interesting angle is told from FBI agents Lambert (Forest Whitaker) and Price (Lily Rabe). The year is 1972; black men and women, despite their ethnicity, are a rarity in the positions they hold. I appreciated that the writers are willing to pause from the action and simply allow Lambert and Price to connect in meaningful ways. It is the correct decision because Whitaker and Rabe excel in dramas. By allowing them to relate, their characters become all the more convincing. We see why it is important for them to get the job done. It is not just about putting bad guys behind bars.
Unlike a myriad of heist films, “Finding Steve McQueen” is not about excitement or suspense. It is about people caught in circumstances and the jobs they must perform. We have at least a modicum of understanding when it comes to each player. It just so happens to be funny in parts with a killer soundtrack.