Boiling the Lance…
Cyclist Lance Armstrong’s return from cancer to a record seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France is one of the great sporting stories of our time. Or was, until he was exposed as a serial doper and had his titles stripped from him in disgrace.
This is meaty stuff for a film, and a pedigree British team – Philomena director Stephen Frears and Trainspotting writer John Hodge – tear into it with gusto, methodically demonstrating how Armstrong’s rise went hand in hand with not only a sophisticated doping programme but the disgrace and intimidation of anyone willing to speak out.
At times it can feel oddly like a heist movie, with the various cloak-and-dagger schemes Armstrong and his team concoct to avoid detection playing out surprisingly like a criminal conspiracy. Which makes sense, since as the film makes clear, the cash Armstrong was bringing in meant that his story was much about corporate corruption as simple cheating.
This is a bigger narrative than just pulling a fast one, and Ben Foster’s lead performance more than rises to it. As an impersonation, it’s astonishing – Foster already looks a little like Armstrong, but with the aid of some subtle make-up the resemblance is uncanny. Plenty of high-level athletes have borderline sociopathic tendencies, and Foster leans into this, displaying the charm Armstrong could turn on and off like a light, and the simmering rage beneath every smile.
However amazing, though, it’s a fundamentally external performance – or at least, the script makes it one. Based on the work of crusading journalist David Walsh (played capably here by Chris O’Dowd), this is very much a docudrama – we see plenty of the mechanics of Armstrong’s deception, and how exposure crept slowly to his door, but Frears has clearly chosen not to root too deeply into Armstrong’s psyche.
Where did this will to succeed and capacity for deception on a grand scale come from? You won’t find even a hint of it here – even in the scenes where he’s staring death in the face, Armstrong’s family are barely glimpsed. In fact, his personal life gets no time at all. A narrative feature can do things documentary can’t, and there are already several corking docs out there that over this material.
What price a little glimpse under the helmet? Still, that’s a quibble – so much here hits the mark, from the spot-on ’90s period detail to Guillaume Canet’s fun turn as Armstrong’s dodgy doctor. As much about Walsh’s journalistic tenacity as Armstrong’s bullshit, this is All The President’s Cyclists, urgent, intelligent and compelling.