Director Stephen Frears sees his Lance Armstrong movie “The Program,” which world premieres on Sunday at the Toronto Film Festival, as a “crime story,” while Tim Bevan, one of the film’s producers, describes it as a kind of “gangster movie.”
In such a scenario, with Armstrong cast as the villain, there needs to be a hero, “someone to root for,” as Bevan puts it, and sports journalist David Walsh takes that role.
The movie, which uses Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” as its source, follows Walsh’s pursuit of Armstrong (played by Ben Foster). Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd) was for many years a lone voice in suggesting Armstrong was doping, and it became a battle of wills between the two. “It did become quite personal because we went back so far,” Walsh told Variety. “I’d interviewed him when he was a kid and I liked him.”
He said it was the self-deception of the public, the media, the sponsors and the sports authorities that was at fault. “You didn’t need to be a super-sleuth to realize this guy was doping,” he said. “It’s just that people didn’t want to see it.” No one wanted to ruin the fairy-tale about the guy who conquered cancer. “This was such a life-affirming story,” Walsh said.
For a while it was Walsh who was cast as the villain. “I was the guy on the outside, saying I don’t believe this. I was the pariah,” he said.
One concern for Bevan was that for Americans, Armstrong had been a hero, and a movie with an American villain as the central character may not be popular with U.S. audiences.
“I think we underestimated how slighted and let down Americans felt by Lance Armstrong, that he had been a real American icon and hero,” Bevan said.
Frears believes that the view of the U.S. public has changed and they’re now willing to accept the revised view of Armstrong as a flawed hero.
He said it’s too simplistic to see Armstrong as “bad.” “I probably, instinctively, find people quite ambiguous,” Frears said. “What’s interesting about Lance is how complex he is. Everybody would say he was very good company. They’d speak about the good side of him. So you immediately had a very complicated man.”
Bevan said that one of the things that drew him to the project was Armstrong, this “deeply flawed, interesting character.” “The portrait of Armstrong is multidimensional,” Walsh added.