An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong's performances during the Tour de France victories are fueled by banned substances. With this conviction, he starts hunting for evidence that will expose Armstrong.
Cinema is full of heroic tales of one man taking on the system and coming out a winner. The thing that hits hardest with director Stephan Frears’ look at the career of Lance Armstrong is the way that for much of its running time this is one of those stories – only the system was what was supposed to keep cycling clean.
When we first meet Armstrong (Ben Foster) as a cyclist in the early 90s, obstacles are already stacking up against him: his muscle-heavy body shape means he’ll never win a Tour de France, and with everyone else in Europe already using drugs his early embrace of EPO (erythropoietin) could be read as just levelling the playing field. Then he falls ill, and his battle with testicular cancer is the kind of terrifying brush with death that leaves those who survive focused only on what’s really important in life. Unfortunately, with Armstrong the thing that’s important is winning, and the flawed human he was is reborn as a ruthless machine totally focused on victory. Everyone and everything around him becomes a means to an end, with his fellow riders on the U.S. Postal team – including Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), who’s deeply religious Mennonite upbringing will have a part to play – there simply to protect him until he bursts for the finish line.
While his drug regime, administered under the watchful eye of Italian expert Michele Ferrari (a cartoonish Guillaume Canet), keeps him one step ahead of the testers, journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) smells a rat. But it’s a rat nobody wants to expose, leaving Walsh increasingly isolated as Armstrong effortlessly bounds from triumph to triumph.
Telling a story as complicated as Armstrong’s rise and fall in a hundred minutes is tough work, and this film’s focus on a handful of main players leaves parts of the story threadbare. Frears does a great job with the cycling sequences, but often the dramatic moments feel like a collection of high points rather than an actual story; Armstrong seduces his PR wife with a series of questions, we cut to the wedding, and she’s barely seen again.
It’s in the performances that this film equals the energy of the cycling scenes. O’Dowd winningly conveys Walsh’s tenacity and growing incredulity at the head-in-the-sand attitude of those around him, while rising star Plemons gets across Landis’ growing torment at the tension between his religious beliefs and the lifestyle of a drug cheat – though tellingly, it’s not until he’s dismissed by Armstrong that he finally goes public. Both Plemons and Armstrong have scenes where they talk about their triumphs to an audience; Plemons can barely hold it together talking to his community in a church hall about how he’ll beat the drug accusations against him, while Armstrong – who we see multiple times practicing his lies – presents to the world the polished, perfect façade of a machine. Foster captures the implacable will behind all this, the mindset of a man determined to conquer all, convinced that attacking is the only path through life.
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Monday 25 January, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Dustin Hoffman, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet