The power of documentary film is that they can inform and entertain. They can engage us in a life we may not know or expand our knowledge on a topic near and dear to our hearts. Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans works – to an extent – because it brings an iconic film star to life for a generation who might not be familiar with his work.
Directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s uneven but interesting film brings famed daredevil and actor McQueen front and center. This isn’t a birth-to-death documentary but a portrait of the actor’s determination to bring a passion project to life. The Le Mans in the title is the 1971 film McQueen fought endlessly to get made. The movie is about racecar drivers who dare to drive on one of the toughest courses – Le Mans in France – around.
McQueen’s efforts to bring Le Mans to the screen is the very definition of the term “passion project.” An avid racecar driver in real life, McQueen wanted to make a film that celebrated the sport. The project was approached unconventionally because at the time of production – when they were arriving in Le Mans to start filming – there was no script for his film. Uneasiness loomed over the entire project and those who were involved. Except McQueen’s, whose determination persisted.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is a documentary that highlights the classic production struggle of a big project (Le Mans cost a staggering $6 million to make, which was a lot for the 1970s). There were differences in opinions, fights between director and actor, scheduling conflicts and budgetary issues. We can just ask the recent reboot of Fantastic Four – this is a sign of a doomed movie. The documentary tells us on a title screen the film opened to “mixed reviews.”
If Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans was just about the production of the 1971 film, it may have proven to be a stronger film. Clarke and McKenna try to tell two stories in their movie. We get a bit of biography mixed with a behind the scenes drama. Both are compelling stories but combined together it creates an uneven and sometimes unfocused experience. “The Man” and a documentary about “Le Mans” could have made two full-length films alone.
Clarke and McKenna were given a breadth of material, which they use effectively throughout the movie. They have footage and voiceovers of McQueen. We get to see clips of him racing and making movies and his passion for both are often quite evident. They employ typical talking heads, including McQueen’s son, Chad, and widow, Neile, both adding a much more personal look at McQueen. There are moments where we think we are getting to the heart of who McQueen was but the film shies away, trying to cover too much in one film.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Having known very little about the once larger than life figure of Hollywood, I’m happy to have seen Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans. Just don’t expect it to make you an authority on the topic. In a year that has given us one of the best documentaries in some time – Amy – Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Man seems like less of a standout going into awards season.