Richard Nixon’s America retains a weird allure for filmmakers, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the most recent incumbent of the White House has powered nostalgia for a time when a crooked occupant could be toppled from the highest office in the land. Films like The Post directly hark back to the days of Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein. Even in a heist film like Finding Steve McQueen Nixon looms large as the ultimate villain, a corrupt spectre against whom the participants in a bank robbery appear quaintly aspirational. Robin Hood types looking to rob the ill-gotten gains of the Boogeyman himself. Our protagonist of this likeable but slight crime caper is certainly portrayed in terms of a loveable folk hero. However, both he and the film itself fall short of those they seek to emulate.
The Unified California Bank heist in 1972 was the largest in American history. The perpetrators got away with $9m after raiding the Laguna Nagel branch, but that does not tell the whole story. The target was an estimated $30m in ‘dirty money’ – shady donations towards Nixon’s re-election campaign. A victimless crime, surely? The events of the heist are relayed eight years later by getaway driver Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel) to his disbelieving girlfriend Molly (Rachael Taylor). He has been on the run since, known to all as John Baker. To the FBI, all they have is the alias, ‘Steve McQueen’.
Finding Steve McQueen flits between the heist, Barber’s retelling, and Barber and Molly’s courtship in the immediate aftermath of the robbery. Therein lies the problem. The split narrative is indicate of the wispiness of the story itself. Johnson, and writers Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon apportion as much focus to the romantic element as the criminal aspect, and the result is a thin gruel. The choppy Tarantino-seque approach may worked if there had been more fire between Barber and Molly. They’re both dreamers. She yearns to be Faye Dunaway in Bonny and Clyde. Barber owns a Mustang GTO and poses like the iconic poster for Bullitt. Fimmel, of course, lacks McQueen’s stratospheric charisma, but that is ultimately the point. It just isn’t enough to make us care whether our cut-price Faye and Steve get to stage their own Thomas Crown Affair.
Fortunately the barrelling pace of the heist itself keeps things ticking along. It helps that one of the great character actors, William Fichtner, is conducting things as the low-rent hood and rabidly anti-Nixon Enzo. There’s a touch of peak Christopher Walken, and a lot of William Friedkin in his mercurial persona. His impassioned diatribe against Tricky Dicky, ‘He is a bigger fucking crook than we will ever be!’ gets to the rub of the film in a more concise way than its cut-and-shut narrative. Also impressive with minimal screen time are a dogged Forest Whitaker and Lily Rabe as quietly trailblazing FBI agents. In a neat touch, we’re invited to root for them as much as their blue-collar targets (And, for conspiracy fans out there, their boss Mark Felt would later turn out to be the infamous Deep Throat). Poor Rachael Taylor gets the thin wedge as the sassy Molly, but for too much of the film is simply the audience surrogate as Barber spills the beans.
As a knockabout 90 minutes, Finding Steve McQueen serves well enough. There are some likeable performances and some era-appropriate jokes that evoke the old days of the buddy comedy. There are just too many strands crammed into the jumbled narrative, giving a false impression that it is a more dynamic and layered film than it actually is. A solid 90 minutes could easily have been made from Whitaker and Rabe’s dynamic duo on the hunt, or on the planning and implementation of the heist itself. As it is, the film flatters to deceive.
Available on-demand from Mon 16 Nov 2020