By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Youngstowners who have been around long enough might remember the safe-cracking Dinsio Gang.
But they probably don’t know the story behind the burglary outfit’s greatest caper – a 1972 bank break-in that targeted $30 million of then-President Nixon’s money.
At the time it was the largest bank heist of all time, with $9 million stolen, and it was followed by the biggest FBI manhunt in U.S. history.
Want to watch?
What: “Finding Steve McQueen”
Rating: R for language throughout, including some sexual references
Running time: 1:30
How to see it: The theater nearest to the Mahoning Valley is the AMC Classic Solon 16 multiplex in Solon. It can also be viewed on streaming services and On Demand
It also was the job that put the gang out of business for good.
The story of the Dinsios’ outlandish bank job is told in “Finding Steve McQueen,” a fun and lightly fictionalized movie that will be released Friday via On Demand, streaming services and at theaters in six cities, including Cleveland’s AMC Classic Solon 16. It will not be shown at any Youngstown-area theaters.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson (“Grumpy Old Men,” “Ghost Rider,” “Daredevil”), the film stars Travis Fimmel (“Vikings”), Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, William Fichtner and Rachael Taylor.
In Johnson’s hands, the Dinsios are an almost-loveable gang of close-knit crooks with a hatred of Nixon that gives their quest a slight Robin Hood touch – steal from the rich, but then just keep it. The movie is part comedy, part love story and part bank caper.
The cocky, colorful and profane Dinsio Gang characters add a Youngstown flair. The portrayals might belie the skill and seriousness of the gang, but they also provide some fish-out-of-water humor as they try to blend into the seaside town of Laguna Niguel, Calif., home of the bank they burglarize.
The film focuses on Harry Barber, the driver for the gang, who idolized action movie star Steve McQueen – hence the title.
Barber (played by Fimmel) eluded capture for seven years, living under an assumed name in a small Pennsylvania town until the FBI finally snared him. The film begins with Barber breaking the news to his girlfriend that he is not who she thinks he is, and then goes into a flashback of the bank job.
In a phone interview, Johnson – the director – talked about what lured him to the story and the theme that lurks beneath its surface.
“It’s a story that no one had heard of before,” said Johnson. “When I tell people about their plan to rob the president of the United States, they think it is a fascinating footnote in history. But most fantastic is that it is all true.”
It’s also timely. The Watergate case was building at the time of the heist, and Johnson noted the obvious parallel between the Nixon probe and the investigation into the Trump presidency.
On a deeper level, the story is about identity – more specifically, the clash between who we are and who we aspire to be.
“It’s about people trying to be something more,” said Johnson. “Harry wants to be Steve McQueen. [His girlfriend] Molly (played by Taylor) wants to be a celebrity.”
And the small-town gang strives to punish the president of the United States.
While Johnson may have taken some dramatic license in telling the story, he also aimed for accuracy. With a story that is almost too unbelievable to be true, he didn’t need to exaggerate.
“When people look it up, they say ‘oh my God, it’s true’,” said Johnson.
The you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up details are weaved throughout the film. For example, Harry’s girlfriend in the Pennsylvania town turns out to be the local sheriff’s daughter; also, fingerprints left on dirty dishes at the gang’s stakeout house in California helped the FBI track them down.
Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” “The Butler,” “Black Panther”) plays the lead FBI agent on the case.
“Finding Steve McQueen” was shot in Georgia, but the state fills in nicely for Youngstown, Laguna Niguel and the Pennsylvania town where Harry Barber was arrested.
The film crew and Johnson got a lot of bang out of a modest $5.5 million budget. “There were some long days, but it came out looking great,” said Johnson.
In researching the story, the director met with Barber. Now in his 70s, the former Youngstowner is out of prison and living a modest life in southern California.
“Harry is great,” said Johnson. “He works as a handyman, and it is amazing to think that if you need some yard work or plumbing done, this sweet old man could show up, and you would not know that he was one of the biggest bank robbers in U.S. history.”
Barber was open in talking about his story – up to a point.
“He was very forthcoming, but clammed up when I brought up the rumor that they have a fortune buried in coffee cans [somewhere in the Youngstown area],” said Johnson.
Barber shared details but insisted that the real names of his mother and his former girlfriend not be used in the film, and the director complied.
In fact, many of the names are changed: Amil Dinsio (played by Fichtner), the ringleader, becomes Enzo Rotella in the film.
Achieving historical accuracy could be challenging, the director discovered.
“The tricky think about doing a true story is that there are always different accounts of what happened,” said Johnson. “Some say this one did everything, and another will say ‘no, it’s all my doing’.”
Recreating the 1970s look was important to the film, and Johnson achieves it in the clothing, hair, furniture and automobiles. But to really capture the flair of the era, Johnson also made some stylistic decisions in his cinematography that borrow from television dramas of the era.
“We wanted it to look that way,” he said. “The color palette is like a retro film from the 1970s. Even the [promo] poster has that classic Steve McQueen look.”