Films about sports are seldom successful; actors aren’t great sports people and sports people don’t make great actors. ‘Escape to Victory’ was a film set in a prisoner of war camp where the inmates started a football team; I seem to remember Bobby Moore and Pele were in it (they couldn’t act) and also Michael Caine (he couldn’t play football). Rocky was a good film but Sylvester Stallone wouldn’t last a minute against Mike Tyson.
However, Stephen Frear’s film about Lance Armstrong – The Program – is entirely believable. For one thing Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong is uncanny and the cycling sequences are entirely convincing. The story has been told many times before and is based on Sunday Times journalist David Walsh’s (here played by Chris O’Dowd – good but way too young) refusal to accept that Lance is clean and his dogged pursuit of the truth. All of the key moments of Walsh’s books are here – Lance’s hospital confession in front of Betsy and Frankie Andreu that he’d taken performance enhancing drugs; Lance asking for a back-dated TUE for cortisone because of saddle sores and his comment to Emma O’Reilly – ‘now you know enough to bring me down;’ his description of her as a whore; Lance’s comments to Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simione about ‘omerta’ in the peloton; the motor-cyclist delivering blood bags and syringes to the team bus, etc.
Walsh is the ‘hero’ – the only one who refuses to believe that Lance is riding clean, alienating friends and colleagues because he dares to question the great man.
The villain of the piece is Dr Michele Ferrari who is shown cynically manipulating Lance (after his request) to prove how science can bring remarkable changes to someone’s performance, although Ferrari’s Joe Dolce ‘Shaddap you face’ accent grates. The other out and out villain is Johann Bruyneel – shown as up to his neck in the whole conspiracy while the other riders including Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis (played by Jesse Plemons, late of Breaking Bad) are sucked into Lance’s game plan.
It’s hard to see the film being of much interest to a non-cycling fan – captions give the names of key individuals eg ‘Floyd Landis’ and ‘Johann Bruyneel’ but unless you know who they are you’d be in the dark.
A few scenes strike the wrong note – Alberto Contador is shown near the end as Lance attempts his comeback tour but although he is dark and Spanish looking he is not nearly thin enough. Dustin Hoffman (yes, him) has a small part as Bob Hamman, the insurance agent who was forced to pay out win bonuses when Armstrong won the tour seven times.
Armstrong’s motivation is depicted as:
1) all of the others were doing it and he wouldn’t win otherwise and
2) having beaten cancer, to him everything was possible and allowed.
Scenes of Ben Foster and the other actors cycling are cleverly intercut with genuine footage and no cycling film would be complete without appearances by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, although thankfully we are spared Sean Kelly, Ned Boulting and, most importantly, David Millar (although he is ‘Cycling Consultant’ – what about? Doping?)
The bikes – built by Condor when originals couldn’t be found – and race jerseys and other kit are all faithfully reproduced and the iconic picture of Lance lying on his L-shaped sofa in his giant living room with his 7 Tour jerseys framed on the walls is faithfully reproduced. The film ends with his famous interview with Oprah Winfrey; it has her ask the questions which Ben Foster as Lance then answers as he confesses all.
Do you learn anything new about Armstrong? No.
Is the film worth seeing? Definitely.
Is it a film about sports which is believable? Indubitably.
Is it worth seeing if you’re not interested in cycling? Probably not.
Did Lance deserve a lifetime ban? Now that’s a different blog.