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For 100 points, what is the thread connecting the world’s oldest sports car race and Hollywood’s brightest star in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Other than possessing a near-mythical stature in their respective fields, Le Mans (1971) is Steve McQueen’s passion project, one that aims to become the definitive cinematic portrayal of racing and elevate the actor’s clout. Neither happened – the film cursed all those involved and altered the “King of Cool” forever. Documakers Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna have chosen that as the subject, and their final product absolutely deserves a spin.
If, for some reason definitely of the odd kind, the content of The Man & Le Mans isn’t captivating enough, know that Clarke and McKenna are interspersing previously unseen footage and sound bites with interviews with surviving crew members. McQueen’s son Chad, the female lead Louise Edlind, writer/confidant Alan Trustman, driver/racer David Piper, the actor’s personal assistant Mario Iscovich, then-wife Neile Adams and more – each person is situated against a smoky background, recalling what they experienced during the tumultuous production. Plentiful were on-set issues, ranging from the usual (going over-budget, fallouts, director change, revised scripts), then the bizarre (an appearance on Charles Manson’s hit list) to the exclusive (a purported 12 trysts, notable vehicular accidents with one being the star’s). Still, every memory, no matter what kind, validates the actor’s mantra – recited by Trustman – of always have the final say, there is no benefit in commitment and never be hemmed in.
But fate has a thing for upsetting whatever bears the semblance of a plan. For such moments, Clark and McKenna employ some unexpectedly cinematic and elegantly staged re-enactments. Alternatively, the directors will weave in the media they have collected. Regardless of the approach chosen, McQueen’s high-octane lifestyle comes to the fore; the moments he encounters aren’t so different from a blockbuster, trunkful of dramas and plot twists. Despite the one flipping the car, with Edlind and Iscovich, while on a secret night-out with his co-star, McQueen pointed the blame and got the then 21-year-old assistant sacked. In the pursuit of capturing the sensation of driving a race car, a driver crashed at high speeds and had to amputate his foot (and never received compensation). To ensure Le Mans will be the “ultimate racing film,” McQueen readily severed his relations with people who had brought him fame. “I am too old, and too rich to put up with this s–t,” said director John Sturges of The Great Escape (1963) when the actor rejected his suggestions for more traditional contributions e.g. a narrative.
Criticisms about McQueen, being a womanizer, paranoiac and outright jerk, are made, yet those times of highs and (mostly) lows denote the actor’s singular kind of drive. To practice for the film, he got onto the grid at Sebring and won second with a broken-clutch Porsche. To protect the film’s vision from dilution, McQueen formed a production company and collected footage from an actual Le Mans race. It will be hard-pressed to find a second performer like him today with all the protocols and other red tapes involved. His actions may have twisted a few lives on the set, but in every act, every bit of his soul was involved – anything to realise that dream of being the next power figure in filmdom. Le Mans was supposed to be the first step.
The correlation between the amount of content and questions that Clark and McKenna have asked are obvious, and respectable, even if in the end the majority of them don’t go further than “tell me what happened.” That said, through a very solid structure, one can unearth a goldmine of topical industry-related matters such as the everlasting creativity-versus-corporate battle and how an artist’s passion can be rendered into their own poison.
McQueen no longer drives, after Le Mans and in this lifetime, but there is still sweetness. The film has an audience. Even better, the McQueen who impressed celluloid with his grit, intensity and at-redline living is still the version consciences turn to first. Clark and McKenna’s documentary ensures the latter will happen as long as Le Mans, motorsports, movie car chases and big-screen action heroes stay around.