This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 29th November 2015
There is no question the story of Lance Armstrong’s spectacular fall from grace makes for a fascinating movie. Despite the fact we know most of it going in, watching the seven time Tour de France winner’s eye-boggling audacity played out on screen is nothing short of horrific. And despite some flaws in the telling, it’s a story from which you can’t look away.
The linchpin in this biopic is, of course, Ben Foster, with his unfamiliar face and powerhouse rendition of what it is to be ruthlessly ambitious and seemingly lacking a soul. That sounds harsh, but Foster’s portrayal of Armstrong, while completely engrossing and believable, makes no pretence at painting the cyclist as a multi-faceted human being. What made him so driven? Who was he trying to impress? The film gives no indication. This man is simply a machine of manipulation and overblown pride and, as a result, not a scene ends (not even when he is receiving his cancer diagnosis) when we’re not left thinking “What a jerk”.
The narrative whizzes through Armstrong’s career, ticking off the years from tour to tour, briefly introducing us to colleagues and team-mates (the supporting performances are uniformly strong and convincing) as the yellow-shirted wunderkind barks at people, injects illegal substances and lies with impunity. The pop soundtrack blares; the camerawork takes every angle. It’s completely in-your-face.
Stephen Frears may seem an unlikely directorial match (he’s well-regarded for everything from Dirty Pretty Things and High Fidelity to Philomena and The Queen), but his career history certainly speaks to his wide-ranging tastes and his overriding thirst for a good story. In this instance, he’s adapting journalist David Walsh’s tell-all book, and Irish actor Chris O’Dowd is terrific, playing Walsh as the sole conscience in a sport which seems at times complicit in Armstrong’s deceit.
Packing everything into a relatively short running time for the amount of ground covered, it’s a bit like watching a gangster movie where the bad behaviour is repellently intoxicating – only this time you don’t want the antihero to get away with all of the money.