'Steve McQueen: American Icon': Film Review

Barbara Minty McQueen
Thinly disguised proselytizing.
9/28/2017

This documentary, narrated by Gary Sinise, shines a spotlight on the actor's late-in-life religiosity.

Fans of Steve McQueen may be surprised at the not-so-hidden agenda of Steve McQueen: American Icon, a new documentary about the legendary actor. Although it dutifully recounts McQueen’s hardscrabble beginnings and his most famous movie roles, the film seems more interested in shedding light on the actor having become a born-again Christian late in his life. The doc is being shown in theaters nationwide Thursday, with an encore screening on Oct. 10.

The film prominently features Greg Laurie, a mega-church pastor, who describes himself as one of McQueen’s biggest fans. Professing to identify with the actor because they both endured troubled childhoods, Laurie heavily injects himself into the narrative. He looks awfully silly wearing a leather jacket and driving a replica of the Ford Mustang McQueen barreled through the hills of San Francisco in Bullitt.

One of the more interesting interview subjects is Mel Gibson, who talks at length about McQueen’s minimalist acting style. His admiration for McQueen comes across vividly, and his analysis proves keen and insightful. “He was the best Steve McQueen there was,” Gibson points out. It does, however, come a bit uncomfortably close to home when he comments that McQueen possessed a “disinhibition almost to the point of criminality.”

Numerous clips effectively showcase McQueen’s intense charisma as well as his propensity for scene-stealing by conducting bits of physical business to draw attention. The most famous example is The Magnificent Seven, in which McQueen consistently upstaged and irritated his co-star Yul Brynner and wound up stealing the entire movie.

The documentary, narrated by Gary Sinise, doesn’t shy away from relating the seedier aspects of McQueen’s lifestyle, including his overindulgence in drugs and women. It also details his growing paranoia, especially after he was nearly one of the victims of the Manson Family murders and took to carrying a gun at all times. It also describes at length his insecurity and pettiness, illustrated by, among other things, counting his lines in scripts and obsessing about billing. Eventually he grew so disgusted with Hollywood that he withdrew, growing a heavy beard and turning down film offers. At one point, he even began charging $50,000 just to read a script.

But according to the film, McQueen eventually found solace in God after taking flying lessons from an older, religious man who became a mentor and father figure. McQueen’s religiosity became more pronounced after he was diagnosed with the rare form of lung cancer that eventually killed him at age 50. He was befriended by Reverend Billy Graham, who gifted the actor with his personal leather-bound Bible.

Leaning heavily on interviews with McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty McQueen, the documentary features many interesting aspects, including previously unseen photos of the actor in his final years and audio excerpts from his last interview, conducted two weeks before his death. But its hammering home of the religious angle in the final segment feels more than a little heavy-handed.

Production companies: American Icon Films
Distributor: Fathom Events
Directors: Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin
Narrator: Gary Sinise

110 minutes

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