Director: Jeff Renfroe
Writer: David Ray
Cast: Robert Downey Jr. (voice), Kristin Kreuk (voice), Chad McQueen, Gary Oldman, Zoe Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Randy Couture, Katherine Haber, Norman Jewison, Pat Johnson, Ali MacGraw
Running Time: 90 min.
By Kyle Warner
“You never know with a Hollywood star whether you’re seeing the real person. You know, everyone said that John Wayne was a great hero but the reality is that John Wayne played great heroes. With McQueen, you definitely got the idea that you were seeing an authentic person.” – Film critic Ben Mankiewicz
Produced by Network Entertainment, I Am Steve McQueen is another in the company’s line of documentaries looking back on the life and career of a talent from the past. I’ve not seen their I Am Evel Knievel or their upcoming I Am Chris Farley, but I have seen their 2012 documentary I Am Bruce Lee. The McQueen doc does not differ much from I Am Bruce Lee’s formula. Despite the title that might suggest the documentary is about McQueen’s life in his own words, his life story is primarily told by the family he left behind and the admirers he inspired
The film charts McQueen’s life from his tough childhood to his death at the age of 50 when he was one of the world’s biggest movie stars. As the documentary goes on, it touches on McQueen’s major films like Bullitt, The Great Escape, and Papillon, while also taking time to give his fans a better understanding of his personal life. And of course there’s the racing. Lots and lots of racing. I’d known Steve McQueen had a reputation as a car guy that dabbled in racing now and then, but before watching this documentary I hadn’t known that he was so serious about racing as a sport. There was a time in his career when you could say that he was a racer that also acted and not the other way around.
I think the film’s finest achievement is that does a good job of letting you that McQueen was more than just an actor; he was a highly skilled racer, a military veteran, and a very complicated human being. And I mean complicated. I Am Steve McQueen paints the actor as an incredibly competitive man. Friends from acting school remember him as considering all other blonde, blue-eyed actors as potential enemies. When he went onto bigger films, it seems he did all he could to steal scenes away from his co-stars so that he would leave the biggest impression on the audience (which is especially noticeable in The Magnificent Seven). McQueen wasn’t out to make friends in showbiz, but rather to make a name for himself. And he succeeded, giving us one memorable performance after another while simultaneously building an image for himself as the steely eyed, silent type anti-hero. Often times his competitive nature helped him rise to a level of stardom that other actors could not have reached. However, that same drive also ruined some relationships with artistic colleagues and loved ones. McQueen seemed to understand his competitive nature was leading him to the edge and he thought learning martial arts under the tutelage of Pat Johnson and Bruce Lee would help him to achieve inner balance. It would seem, based on three marriages and a multitude of fractured relationships with directors and co-stars, inner peace remained largely elusive for McQueen through much of his life.
There are many archival clips and images of McQueen throughout the documentary but the man himself grants very little information to the questions posed about his life and career. Instead, others are asked to fill in the gaps. Robert Downey Jr. serves as the film’s narrator, but like McQueen he is given very little to say. McQueen’s family lends information on his personal life and feelings over the years. Director Norman Jewison (The Cincinnati Kid), TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, and biographer Marshall Terrill give us some history about McQueen’s films. And actors Pierce Brosnan, Gary Oldman, Zoe Bell, and Randy Couture gush with admiration about how McQueen inspired them and influenced the craft of film acting. It’s a lively group of individuals and the documentary is never boring, but I do think I Am Steve McQueen suffers from not enough of the man’s own words about his life. True, it seems McQueen was a quiet type off-screen as well as on-screen, but it still feels less complete than I would’ve liked. One of the things the documentary makes clear is that once McQueen had control over where he wanted his career to go, many of the characters he played told a little something about him. McQueen’s filmography is somewhat biographical, showing his youth on the mean streets, to his time in the military, to his love for cars and racing. So, while the documentary doesn’t give us too much of McQueen talking about himself, perhaps we can still learn something more about the man just by watching his movies.
The documentary spends too much time trying to explain how or why McQueen was cool. I guess I understand the reasoning behind it since he is known as the ‘King of Cool,’ after all. But I feel they returned to this part of McQueen’s mystique too often, leaving some of the interviewees to ramble on about his clothes, his eyes, and whether or not he would still be considered quite as cool if we just recognized him as some random guy and not the famous actor. It’s like they were attempting to explain the science of ‘cool.’ It’s entertaining at first, but only at first.
I was not a fan of I Am Bruce Lee. I felt it barely scratched the surface of the legend that is Bruce Lee, and instead was more focused on showing how Lee influenced others in their film or martial arts careers. I liked I Am Steve McQueen considerably more. Like the Bruce Lee documentary, I feel the McQueen film could’ve gone deeper. I don’t believe that McQueen’s bigger fans will learn anything new from the film. But it’s an entertaining documentary that covers all the major bases. More casual McQueen fans – like me – are more likely to get something out of the documentary, as it grants an interesting, honest look at the King of Cool. In the end, the documentary made me want to rewatch the McQueen films in my collection and check out some of the others that I missed. I figure that means I Am Steve McQueen accomplished what it set out to do.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10