Without a doubt a challenging film to undertake by Stephen Frears, not in the ilk of Philomena but in part due to how recently the events depicted occurred, the level of detail and memories of people will undoubtedly taint the impression of an enjoyable film. At the core of this film is the rise and fall of a sporting legend and global icon, with the protagonist a journalist chasing the story of a lifetime. The opening scene of a cyclist in yellow with number 181 on his back shows Lance Armstrong, portrayed at times eerily by Ben Foster, charging up a climb from the 1999 Tour De France. The monologue and images portray a combination of the natural competitor that Lance is and the lies that sold his image and reputation. During the opening sequences the viewer is treated to a montage of victories from 1999 to 2005 interlinked with the struggles to compete against a drug fuelled peloton. In one of many flashbacks the concept a drug fuelled peloton is introduced and explained to a young Lance why he won’t win in Europe. The viewer is treated to the wonders of a cobbled ride and the breaking of the world champion Lance Armstrong as his drug fuelled competitors finish in an unnatural 1st, 2nd and 3rd under the medical care of doctor Ferrari.”
This leads into a key scene in the story of Lance and the doping, where he is depicted leading the conversation about starting or getting on a program, he seeks to level the playing field by aligning himself with Michael Ferrari. A few scenes depicting the entry to the first program pass by before his cancer rears its head, its dealt with pretty quickly in order to keep the film’s tempo but even in the moments I never felt any empathy or compassion for the character. This is something that runs through the film as a major flaw, one of the keys to Lance Armstrong’s ability to get away with so much for so long is that he earned both sympathy and respect because he could be charming and persuasive. For anyone who knows the story of Lance the hospital room scene is part of the key to his downfall, as is his relationship with Frankie Andreau who barely features in the film. It seems like it’s a burden for the film to include such details because it is slower than the wonderfully shot cycle sequences. On his way back to cycling you see the formation of his relationship with Dr. Ferrari and the origins of the US Postal’s program. A brief back drop to the doping of the 98 tour and the Festina affair and we move on to the return of Lance in 99.
The film casts David Walsh, portrayed well by Chris O’Dowd, as the key to bringing Lance down and while he is a key protagonist in the story many of his counter parts are bit parts or even excluded from the film. You can see much of his passion for the sport and the vigour of his numerous attempts to find evidence and keys to the doping program and to publish his claims. Like every other film based on books the level of detail missing from the story leaves those who have read the book frustrated for what was left out. This is also true of The Program. When Tyler Hamilton left the US Postal team his place was taken by Floyd Landice who became Lances’ lieutenant for his last few tour wins, and was groomed to be the man to take over from Lance. However The Program shows a man who starts to turn on Lance even while in the same team, without ever trying to develop the character fully, his motivation for his latter actions seems to be a mixture of conscience and betrayal neither of which are fully fleshed out.
With a run time of 1 hour 43 trying to cover 16 years of cycling, doping and multiple lives, everything feels rushed and lacks the level of detail the story deserves. There are many wonderful moments and the visuals of climbs from the tour look epic, and the detail of the bikes and races are really worth taking notice of. But overall I left the screen feeling underwhelmed, perhaps it’s a case that I know too much of the story and this detracts from the film, as having spoken to others the general feeling was that of an enjoyable film with a compelling story. If you choose to see this film be prepared for flash backs, a rushed story, an overall lack of detail but even with these shortcomings it’s a good watch, but I’d much prefer a TV series version.