Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
United Kingdom/France, 2015. Anton Capital Entertainment, StudioCanal, Working Title Films. Screenplay by John Hodge, based on the book by David Walsh. Cinematography by Danny Cohen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon. Music by Alex Heffes. Production Design by Alan MacDonald. Costume Design by Jane Petrie. Film Editing by Valerio Bonelli. Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
Stephen Frears applies his elegant style to a biography of Lance Armstrong, following a similar narrative structure to The Queen and Philomena with results that go nowhere near those films. Armstrong is by now infamous as the cyclist who won the Tour de France seven consecutive times before being disgraced by revelations that he took performance enhancing drugs during all his races. An ego to be reckoned with, the man believed in winning almost as if it was a religious calling, and with his increase in fame and power (much of it the result of the charitable organizations he headed up following his victory over testicular cancer) also became destructive to the people who dared question his integrity. Most affected was Sunday Times reporter David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd, who is terrific, and thanks to this innocuous film it sadly doesn’t matter), who was on to Armstrong’s dubious victories from the beginning and risked his career before having any hard evidence. Ben Foster brings Armstrong to the screen with strength, never recreating him physically (he’s just too short) but outstanding at mimicking his mannerisms and facial expressions (including the constipated look on Armstrong’s face when he came in third the last time he entered the Tour), and, as always with this superb actor, providing a lot of inner life that makes the subject a compelling character. The script is barely more than a greatest hits of what you already know about the man, however, presuming to develop a kind of nemesis relationship between Armstrong and Walsh but never actually putting in the work; where is the climax between these two men and their mounting rivalry? Surely if we can invent Walt Disney flying to London to have it out with P.L. Travers we can fictionalize a summit between two people who actually had quite a few confrontations for the cameras in real life. There’s simply no getting around the fact that Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie provides far more detail than a fictional narrative ever could, and it’s baffling that the bullying tactics that Armstrong so freely applied to Walsh and former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy are downplayed here (especially since this would have made such a great emotional release for the story). A shame, especially considering that the film’s failings undercut the work of such great work by the cast, with Foster particularly deserving of the lead.