In 1980, small town nice guy bartender John Baker (Travis Fimmel) finally owns up to his long-term girlfriend Molly (Rachael Taylor) that his real name is Harry Barber – and he’s been on the FBI’s most wanted list for eight years, for his part in a major bank robbery. In flashbacks, he explains how he graduated from racking up speeding tickets and dressing to look like his screen idol McQueen to tagging along with his mobbed-up uncle Enzo (William Fichtner) on a cross-country trip to raid a particular bank rumoured to be the stash house where then-Prezz Nixon kept a thirty-million-dollar slush fund. The script by Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon takes a fairly simple anecdote and tells it mosaic fashion, intercutting several time periods. The Rififi-like process of the non-violent robbery is detailed heist movie style, as the gang return to the bank for three nights over the weekend after disabling the alarm with surfboard filler foam to looted deposit boxes. We flash forward to Harry’s post-getaway romance with movie fan Molly (she likes Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, he likes Steve McQueen in The Getaway – and the punchline about The Thomas Crown Affair is wittily delivered by someone else). Also woven in is the FBI investigation handled by Lambert (Forest Whitaker) and Price (Lily Rabe), who are surprised when Deputy Director W. Mark Felt (John Finn) – who wonders if they’ve been following the Watergate stories – can’t explain why a hundred agents have been sent to town to pursue this particular case.
Finding Steve McQueen joins American Animals and The Old Man and the Gun in a recent wave of quirky true crime films, but lacks the moral complexity of one and the star value of the other – though it has solid performances across the board, with especially good work from Fichtner as a Nixon-hating crook and Rhys Corio and Louis Lombardo as the other pro hoods on the team. Harry’s relationship with Molly, daughter of a small town Sheriff, is expressed mostly in movie references, with Molly’s style icon changing from Faye Dunaway to Debbie Harry while Harry stays true to McQueen. A token plot thread about the black agent and the woman agent who have had to struggle in the FBI hangs loose – though the excellent Lily Rabe gets one nice moment of reaction as the robbers’ meticulous plan is undone by macho male domestic ineptitude (they didn’t run the dishwasher in their hideout and left prints on crockery, though they wiped the rest of the house) and you’ll need to be up on the history of the Nixon presidency to fill in some of the gaps (significant names dropped include Jimmy Hoffa and Charles Colson). The most interesting, affecting relationship in the film is between Harry and his brother Tommy (Jake Weary), a childlike tagalong who gets the only politically sensitive loot (a collection of baseball cards) from the heist when the brothers are fobbed off with token cash handouts and left in the wind (a moment that undercuts the seeming amorality of the cute crime genre by reminding us that crooks are, after all, pretty rotten people). Directed smartly by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider, Daredevil).