I can see this film dividing opinion, since bike fanatics (of which the UK has a high number) will seek to pick holes in the reality of the story and staging in the same way that a locomotive fan will point out that the 4472, “Flying Scotsman” shouldn’t have been in a film set in 1926! I’m not a keen cyclist, (unless you count pottering around the New Forest occasionally as ‘cycling’), so I approached Stephen Frears’ new biopic on disgraced superstar Lance Armstrong with some reservations. But I really enjoyed it.
Armstrong is portrayed as a massively competitive individual that won’t lose at cycling or table football, and won’t die (from cancer) either. The film deftly portrays how this drive for success dragged him, like quicksand, into the world of illicit doping. In fact, for much of the film, given that he mixes all of this up with fervent support for cancer charities, I ended up feeling quite sorry for the guy: someone who knows he is cheating and fooling the world but sees it as a viable means to an end. However as his lying, both about the doping and his personal past achievements, becomes more and more cringe-worthy, he becomes a pathetic figure: this is not a great PR exercise for Armstrong.
Above all, the film is a warning shot against having too much belief in overly self-confident people. There are some people who can claim wrong is right and be believed because they state the case with such vehemence and, as portrayed, Armstrong was certainly one of those. In a year of (alleged) similar sporting performances at FIFA, it’s a lesson worth learning.
Armstrong is brought brilliantly to life by lookalike Ben Foster, an actor who I must admit to date has rather passed me by. This performance to me deserves a shot at an Oscar nomination. There are parts of the film where he goes all Eddie “Hawking” Redmayne, but aside from these more physical moments, check out the scene where he comes third: just jaw-droppingly effective acting, mixing incredulity and rage all on the same face at the same time. Very impressed.
Foster is backed up by a strong supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”, “Calvary”) plays the Irish journalist David Walsh, doggedly pursuing the doping story. It’s a believable performance. Jesse Plemons is also great in the complex role of Floyd Landis, a fellow rider on the team who has to struggle with not only lying to the public but (more painfully) to his Pennsylvanian Amish community. Denis Ménochet (“Inglorious Basterds”) is also striking as Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s coach. While getting strong billing, Dustin Hoffman is great, as always, but has little more than a cameo in the film over a couple of scenes. (And talking of random cameos (though I can’t see him credited) did I spot Bond producer Michael G Wilson as Armstrong’s doctor?).
The sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Danny Cohen (“Les Miserables”, “The King’s Speech”) brings the cycling scenes to life, and is nicely melded with actual footage of the races. (Though some of the Paris green screen award-giving work is rather less convincing).
Director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, “Philomena”) directs, and wisely chooses to keep the film to a compact and entertaining 103 minutes.
This has been a good year for biopics, and following the excellent “Love and Mercy” about Brian Wilson, “The Program” makes it onto my list as one of the top 10 of the year so far. Recommended.
Fad Rating: FFFF.