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'The Man & Le Mans' chronicles Steve McQueen's troubled auto-racing film

'The Man & Le Mans' chronicles Steve McQueen's troubled auto-racing film
An image of Steve McQueen on the set of "Le Mans" from the movie "Steve McQueen:: The Man & Le Mans." (Nigel Snowdon / Film Rise)

With a surge of star wattage from smashes such as "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt," actor Steve McQueen jump-started an ambitious passion project — the film "Le Mans" — with the goal of authentically representing auto racing on celluloid.

The new documentary "Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans" chronicles that trouble-plagued 1971 picture.

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So ardent was McQueen about the sport that he once paired with race car driver Peter Revson to finish second in the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida in 1970, losing only to Mario Andretti's crew. For "Le Mans," McQueen enlisted John Sturges, who directed him in "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape." But without a script, the production fired on all cylinders toward nowhere.

According to colleagues and loved ones, McQueen behaved recklessly in his professional and personal lives. His off-screen persona became indistinguishable from his on-screen one, with ex-wife Neile Adams McQueen and star makers like Sturges and screenwriter Alan Trustman cast as antagonists in his real-life hero complex. But McQueen would find out that invincibility was only make-believe.

The documentary, far from a glorified making-of featurette, is fittingly cinematic, with spectacularly wide establishing shots and studio-portrait-like testimonials. Filmmakers Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna interweave abundant archival footage and audio seamlessly. You may do a double take when McQueen's son, Chad, an interviewee and an executive producer, appears. One quibble: Although the talking heads affirm the modern-day cult status of "Le Mans," that doesn't tell us much about the film's reception upon release.

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"Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans"

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.

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