Though fact-based movies are often guilty of bending truth to improve a story, Finding Steve McQueen goes in the other direction, downplaying strange-but-true elements that might have helped its saggy narrative.

It’s based on what was at the time the biggest bank job in the country’s history. In 1972, several men busted into a bank in Laguna Niguel, Calif., hoping to steal what they believed was $30 million in illegal campaign donations stashed in safe deposit boxes by operatives connected to President Richard M. Nixon. The bank was located only a few miles away from San Clemente, Nixon’s California home.

The thieves got away with $8 million, apparently none of it dirty Nixon dough. While that was quite a haul in 1972, what made the heist truly noteworthy was the conspiracy behind it. The veteran and mob-connected Youngstown, Ohio, burglary crew was reportedly tipped off to the job by Jimmy Hoffa, who had funneled $3 million to the Nixon campaign and was beginning to feel neglected, and deserving of a refund. The heist was his way of retrieving his investment — and he may have, since much of the loot remains unaccounted for.

What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with Steve McQueen?

Well, nothing. The filmmakers are only peripherally interested in the Hoffa/Nixon angle, and instead are focused on the story of burglar Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), a low-level member of the crew who retires just after the bank job, and ends up living under an assumed name (in real life, he landed in Brookville, Pa.), starting a new life as a bartender, and falling for a local woman (Rachel Taylor) with relatives in the police department.

Barber likes fast cars and Steve McQueen, attributes that would have made him unexceptional in the 1970s, so the film’s fixation on this aspect of Barber’s life (played for laughs) seems misplaced. In fact, it often seems like an irksome distraction from cultural and political aspects of the story left to lie fallow.

The movie’s time-fractured narrative doesn’t help. The story is told in flashback — Barber revealing the secrets of his past life to his girlfriend, recounting how he was recruited for the job (by William Fichtner, who actually masters a Youngstown accent) and how the robbery was accomplished.

This structure blends poorly with the parallel story of the FBI agent (Forest Whitaker) in charge of the investigation — it unfolds alongside Barber’s account, though, of course, he was not in a position to know what was going on the FBI offices.

The movie seems most interested in turning the movie into a showcase for Fimmel, star of History’s Vikings, unrecognizable without his Norse ink and ponytail, going way against type here as an easygoing charmer — he sometimes grins through the fourth wall, like a postadolescent Ferris Bueller. He looks better with a broad ax.


Finding Steve McQueen. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. With Travis Fimmel, William Fichtner, Forest Whitaker, Rhys Coiro and Lily Rabe. Distributed by Momentum Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour 30 mins.

Parents guide: R (language)

Playing at: AMC Cherry Hill