At the end of Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, McQueen speaks, through audio recordings, about the making of the 1971 film Le Mans, saying it was “the most difficult film I’ve ever done.” Illustrating that difficulty has, in hindsight, been the task of directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s own film. By information alone, the filmmakers connect all of the necessary dots, including McQueen starting Solar Productions, a partnership with Cinema Center Films, and his innumerous infidelities with other women, which the documentary claims averaged around 12 a week.
Underlying all of the facts, however, is a lifeless drudge through requisite sources—audio archives, stock footage, firsthand accounts, production notes—in search of an untold story and hamstrung by the filmmakers’ rote assemblage. The Man & Le Mans is out to tell the truth and tell it flatly. In doing so, the film forsakes all ambiguity regarding McQueen’s psychology by stubbornly defining him as a determined, charismatic womanizer, failing to show how McQueen’s vision for a pulsating, rhythmic racing drama was to take shape in the first place.
Early moments opt for abstract presentation: The Hollywood hills are barely seen in the lower corner of a wide shot, decentering Los Angeles as the film’s locus of attention, and a long stretch of deserted California highway is accompanied only by the ambient sounds of rustling winds and debris. Unfortunately, the filmmakers quickly settle into more hackneyed terrain by signposting crucial plot points with on-screen text, voiceover, and audio recordings. Rather than take an unorthodox approach to characterizing celebrity, like the recent Listen to Me Marlon, the filmmakers merely fact-check the period, beginning with the pre-production of Le Mans, which was to be McQueen’s passion project in its realistic depiction of auto racing.
Gabriel Clarke, John McKenna forsake all ambiguity regarding McQueen’s psychology by stubbornly defining him as a determined, charismatic womanizer.
Following the success of Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen wanted to show that he wasn’t going to let producers “pawn me off as a candy-ass movie star,” and was determined to “break the film barrier,” as he put it, by making a film that was wholly his own, as producer and star. As one of the film’s many talking heads puts it, the film was going to have “motor racing and Steve McQueen—you got everything!” Except a script, which commenced the project’s deterioration.
The filmmakers chart the film’s steady decline into production hell by letting cast and crew chime in through new interviews, though their accounts are only insightful or productive regarding off-the-record particulars, like a car crash involving McQueen that was covered up just before Le Mans began shooting. Otherwise, many events are well known. Director John Sturges left the project claiming, “I’m too old and too rich to put up with this shit.” Cinema Center Films pondered halting the project altogether, especially after a series of nearly fatal, on-set car accidents.
McQueen became utterly disillusioned with the film, even refusing to attend its premiere after director Lee H. Katzin was summoned to complete it. All of the factual data jives with McQueen’s frustrations, but the filmmakers neglect to satisfactorily interrogate McQueen’s hubris. The project was conceived without a script, nor even an acute idea beyond its nascent elements. It seems the makers of Le Mans consistently put the cart before the horse (or race car before the driver, if you will), though the voices in the film aren’t so critical or harsh. In fact, by film’s end, McQueen’s failings are calmed by claims that “he had no fear,” suggesting half-cocked artistic ambition correlates with bravery. That doesn’t compute and neither does The Man & Le Mans, a film more interested in petting McQueen than probing him.