Review: ‘Steve McQueen: The Man And Le Mans’

Review by Tom Swift

Sixties superstar Steve McQueen has a magnificent obsession that apparently ends his life at 50.

Like Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen was a small town Midwestern boy who embodied that American icon – the strong, silent type. His hits read like a Turner Movie Classic’s retrospective of the Sixties before The Godfather and Easy Rider changed the movie business forever. The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and The Great Escape are all great entertainments. But The Godfather and Easy Rider felt real. And at the top of his career and with considerable clout, McQueen wanted to make something real and immortal, not just entertainment.

The son of a race car driver, McQueen couldn’t escape his obsession with speed, and as this this documentary recounts, his second place finish as a Porsche driver at Sebring fueled his desire to make the ultimate racing film. Now one might think that race car drivers are somewhat self-destructive, and McQueen the driver / actor / producer seems out to prove that here and as he almost destroys his career by making a movie about Le Mans. And while this documentary fails somewhat as entertainment, it makes for a fascinating portrait of ego run amuck and what can happen when a film doesn’t have a relatable story, and the producers are mad with action but don’t have a clue as to the human content.

People with fast cars know the feeling: you’ve got all that power…and an endless traffic jam before you. So you rev your engine even though you have no place to go. After Sebring, McQueen wanted to immortalize Le Mans, the quintessential Sixties car race, and apparently himself by making a perfect racing film. And he more or less succeeded. Le Mans as a film lets you feel like a race car driver, but sadly doesn’t really move you as a real life human experience.

This film relies on tape recordings of McQueen talking about his experience making Le Mans. Now superstars are famous for their faces, not necessarily what comes out of their mouths. There’s plenty of archival footage of course, and after a while, you begin to feel that race track’s soot on your face. But you can’t really look into McQueen’s famous blue eyes and feel the way his brain ticks. A lot of documentaries fail at this, but this one gets close enough to be tantalizing – just like Icarus who got too close to the sun and felt down to earth.

As a film “making” fan and someone who likes to drive fast, I found this is an enjoyable couple of hours. McQueen apparently wanted the hero of the film Le Mans to fail like he did as the actual race car driver at Sebring. Oddly enough, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans comes off as a second place documentary — just like the film Le Mans came off as a second place film. Is there a poetic justice here that a stronger narrative voice might have helped crossed the finish line? I wish there was. Somewhere in all this is the lost truth that strong, silent types are supposed to win.

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