The United California Bank heist was the largest individual bank robbery in US history and is a crime only ever solved because the “great” minds behind it failed to clean the dishes before they left town. Mark Steven Johnson’s newest film, Finding Steve McQueen recounts the odyssey of the heist, as well as the supposed connection of the stolen money to then-President Richard Nixon. Yet, beyond all that, it tells of Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), the last of the perpetrators to be caught, who lived seven years of everyday life before allowing the law to catch up to him.
The heist was the product of an intense resentment from Harry’s uncle Enzo (William Fichtner) towards President Nixon. Through his right-hand man Pauly Callahan (Louis Lombardi) he hears of the supposed blackmail fund Nixon has hidden in the bank and, not needing any further information, the events become set in motion. Ultimately the gang of thieves from Ohio is formed, and they make their way to the sunshine state to steal their riches. All seems to go off without a hitch, that is until police find their loggings and obtain fingerprints for each of them with little fuss. Soon after they face the law, all except for Barber, who for seven years hides away in Pennsylvania falling in love with local lost soul Molly Murphy along the way. Throughout we cut from a chronological telling of how Barber ended up a runaway to the day he decides to come clean to Molly and finally face his punishment, an editing decision that I found to be the wrong one.
Ultimately the film becomes unfeeling in the editing room. Each time the weight of Harry’s actions begins to boil to the surface, the film cuts away, either through time or off to Howard Lambert (Forest Whitaker), the Californian detective chasing the gang. Harry lived an impossibly stressful and haunted life for seven years, and you probably wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t seen him commit the crime and run, the film is that lighthearted. In saying this, I don’t mean to target Fimmel to any extent, all in all, he makes his criminal character an empathic one, which, in the context, is all you could ask of him. The glaring issues of this film aren’t his, they are Mark Steven Johnson’s and his screenwriters, Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon. Ultimately through all the cutting and apparent aversion to depth in the script, what is supposed to be a pulse-racing heist film and an examination of life and love on the run becomes a strangely haphazard film that amounts a serious crime to virtually nothing and offers no insight into why it was committed or life after it happened.
What the film offers instead of reality isn’t much interesting either. The robbery itself is remarkably stress-free and the one moment of emotional turmoil, when Harry witnesses his brother Tommy’s (Jake Weary) arrest, amounts to only a blip of quality in a sea of underwhelming moments. This could have, and maybe should have, been a spectacular film. Travis Fimmel has the uncanny ability to claw into the depths of enigmatic men, and his role here was a set up for just that, yet the filmmakers let him down. The same goes for Whitaker, who could be cut out of the movie to little consequence, which is alarming considering he’s our only view into the manhunt and the government involvement in the process.
By the time the credits roll, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve only seen half a movie. A movie where life exists in half-thoughts and half events with nothing ever truly becoming whole. Somewhere in the tale of Harry Barber there is a wonderful film, Finding Steve McQueen is not it, and it isn’t very close either.
Dir: Mark Steven Johnson
Scr: Ken Hixon and Keith Sharon
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Forest Whitaker, Rachael Taylor
Prd: Alberto Burgueño, Juan Antonio García Peredo, Andrea Iervolino, Alexandra Klim, Silvio Muraglia
DOP: José David Montero
Music: Víctor Reyes
Run time: 91 minutes
Finding Steve McQueen will be available on Digital Download from 16th November and can be bought here