Category: Sports film

Escape to Victory (1981)

Escape to Victory (1981)

The sort of odd movie pitch that could only have been made in the 80’s: it’s a POW film – but with footballers! And Stallone in goal! Cult nonsense, but fun.

Director: John Huston

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Captain Robert Hatch), Michael Caine (Captain John Colby), Pelé (Cpl Luis Fernandez), Max von Sydow (Major Karl von Steiner), Bobby Moore (Terry Brady), Osvaldo Ardilles (Carlos Rey), Paul von Himst (Michel Fileu), Kazimier Deyna (Paul Wolchek), Hallvar Thoresen (Gunnar Hilsson), Mike Summerbee (Sid Harmor), Russell Osman (Doug Cluire), John Wark (Arthur Hayes), Daniel Massey (Colonel Waldron), Tim Pigott-Smith (Major Rose), Carole Laure (Renee)

It’s possibly the most bizarre idea in movies. An old-school, boy’s-own-adventure about POWs starring a Panini sticker album’s worth of footballers, led by Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone playing the Germans (actually represented by a team of ringers from the New York Cosmos) in a ‘friendly’ football match in Paris. Oh, and it’s directed by John Huston. Who thought this one up?

Needless to say Escape to Victory is a cult hit. Caine plays professional footballer John Colby, his career interrupted by internment in a POW camp, challenged to an exhibition match by football-mad Major von Steiner (Max von Sydow). When von Steiner’s bosses turns the game into a propaganda vehicle, Colby is under intense pressure to pull out. When he refuses – not wanting to put his players lives at risk, some of whom (the Eastern European ones) have been rescued from labour camps – instead he is asked to accommodate a daring escape plan, led by American Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) who joins as ‘trainer’ and back-up goalie. With the match scheduled, a plan is formed: the team will escape at half time. But will the players abandon the game, or will sporting pride kick in?

Well, what do you think? The whole film is a build up to the game. Are they really going to leave it at 4-1 to the Germans? The pedestrian opening two thirds of the film can pass you by. You certainly feel it passed John Huston by (if you ever want to see a great director do a pay cheque movie, watch this). The film settles into familiar rhythms of both genres (sports and POW movies) mashed together. For the latter; forgers, escape committees, roll-calls, daring escape attempts over and under wire, muttered attempts to board trains with fake papers are all dutifully ticked-off. Nothing unusual: the interest is all in the sports film.

And if you are going to make a sports film – crammed with training montages – who else would you hire than a dream list of footballers to perform them. And no footballer was more of a God-like figure than Pelé. Welcome to the only film the Greatest Player Ever made (as soon as he opens his mouth, you’ll see why). Alongside him England’s legendary World Cup winner Bobby Moore, charming Argentinian Ossie Ardilles (not trusted with a line), several other internationals from across Europe and (filling out the numbers) half a dozen players from Ipswich Town (though, to be fair, John Wark might just be the best actor). Most of the best parts involve watching these stars go through their paces.

Michael Caine – who only took the film so he could say he had genuinely played with Pelé – anchors all this reasonably well (even though, at 47, he looks noticeably out-of-shape considering he’s playing an international footballer at the peak of his career). The role of Colby is no stetch for him, but Caine conveys carrying responsibility rather well, and there is some decent material as he butts heads against the unhappy upper-class officers who want him to tell the Germans to shove it.

The officers – decent performances from Daniel Massey and Tim Pigott-Smith among others – point out the Germans won’t give them a sporting chance. But, this is the sort of film where boy’s own pride kicks in, and we get a classic ‘let’s show em’ attitude. This culminates, of course, in the half-time planned escape attempt being aborted as the players protest “We can win this!” and the side head back out for the second half (and, of course, glory).

It’s a big shout as our heroes take a heck of a drubbing in the first half. (This despite Caine’s ahead-of-his-time coaching advice to make the ball do the running, which sounds like tika-taka seventy years early – was Escape to Victory required viewing in Spanish football academies?). To the disappointment of von Steiner – our token ‘Good German’ played with his customary professionalism of von Sydow – who gave his word it would be a fair game, his superiors hire “a very good referee” who will “make no mistakes”. German tackles fly in un-punished, a dubious penalty is awarded and Pelé’s ribs are broken in a filthy foul forcing the team to play with ten men. Those dirty, cheating Germans! Thank goodness Bobby Moore scores to give them a chance.

Every star player gets their moment in the spotlight, most of all Pelé who scores with a trademark bicycle kick. (I wonder if Pelé counted this one in his career goals record?) It’s a breath-taking piece of skill – von Steiner even proves his “Decent German” credentials by rising to applaud (to the fury of his fellow officers). Our heroes pull it back to 4-4 before having a goal disallowed for a false off-side (mind you it feels less inexplicable in an age where VAR chalks off goals for offside elbows). Then of course the Germans are awarded a penalty as the last kick of the game after a fair tackle by Ardiles.

And so, we come to Stallone. Perhaps the most inexplicable thing in this, the Italian Stallion at least convinces as a man who knows nothing about football. Looking trim, Stallone handles most of the POW and escape stuff (and a token romance subplot with a French resistance fighter) but of course space had to be made for him in the game. So, he plays as keeper (the team’s first choice keeper volunteers for Caine to break his arm so Stallone can be released from lock-up to play in the film’s most difficult to watch moment). Stallone wanted to score the winning goal, but was told that was unlikely for a keeper, so instead he saves the penalty to preserve the moral victory. Stallone mumbles his way through the film, feeling bizarrely out of place, but he was the big star.

Escape to Victory is a truly bizarre thing. But it’s got a fun football game in it and as sort of exhibition match it’s a bit of a treat. And watching it shortly after the passing of Pelé, it feels almost like a rather lovely tribute.

The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter (2010)

A fighter has a title shot, in a surprisingly heartwarming film about the importance of family, no matter how messed up it is

Director: David O Russell

Cast: Mark Wahlberg (Micky Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming), Melissa Leo (Alice Eklund-Ward), Jack McGee (George Ward), Frank Renzulli (Sal Lanano), Mickey O’Keefe (Himself)

Everyone loves Rocky. We all want to that local-hero-turned-good, the guy who went the distance. Lowell, Massachusetts had that in Dicky Eklund. Eklund, a minor pro-boxer, once went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978 (he argues he knocked him down, although many are convinced Leonard slipped). “The Pride of Lowell” then became… a crack addict, tumbling from disaster to let-down, helping and hindering the career of his brother, fellow boxer Micky Ward.

The story of the two brothers – leading up to Ward’s eventual title shot in 1997 – comes to the screen in Russell’s affectionate, if traditional, boxing drama, long a passion project of Mark Wahlberg who plays Micky. Wahlberg kept himself in boxer-condition for years as he dreamed of making the film, recruiting director and cast and producing the film. The fine, sensitive film we’ve ended up with is a tribute to his commitment and producing skills, while the fact that Wahlberg casts himself in the least dynamic part is a nice sign of his generosity.

Because it’s only really on the surface a Micky Ward film. Sure, the film follows the vital events in his life. It opens with him bashed up in a mis-match, filling his role as a “stepping stone” fighter, someone the future champs flex their muscles against. We follow his struggles to escape from under the thumb of his large brash family – above all his bombastic, domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo). He forms a relationship with ambitious-but-caring Charlene (Amy Adams), moves up the ranking, lands that title shot, fights the big bout. But it never quite feels like Micky is the star.

Because, really, this feels like it’s about Dicky Eklund working out the first act of his life is over, and trying to find if he has what it takes to start a second, more humble, one. The film opens with Dicky followed by an HBO crew for a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Dicky’s convinced himself it’s to chart his boxing come-back. It’s actually about the horrific impact of crack addiction. Dicky is a strung-out, unreliable junkie, living on past glories but screwing up everything he touches, being enabled by the fawning worship of his mother and sisters, who still worship him as the families main event (and continue to do so, even as Micky rises to title shot). The film’s heart is Eklund sinking to rock bottom and realising he has forced the compliant Micky into playing a subservient role in his own life.

Perhaps it feels like a film more focused on the remoulding of this charming but selfish figure because of the compelling performance of Christian Bale. Starving himself down to match Eklund’s wizened, strung-out physique (he’s still got the boxer moves, but his body has wasted away) is a day’s work for a transformative actor like Bale. But this isn’t just a physical performance, but a deep immersion into the personality of a person who almost doesn’t realise until it is too late how fundamentally flawed he is. Bale’s a ball of fizzling energy and electric wit coated in a lethargic drug-induced incoherence. His energy is frantic but uncontrolled, wild and mis-focused. It’s a superb, heartfelt performance of loveable but dangerous uselessness that nabbed Bale an Oscar.

But what makes The Fighter a surprisingly warm film is that, for all his many flaws, selfishness and self-obsession, Dicky genuinely cares for his brother. He wants the best for him, he believes in and loves him. Much of the power of Bale’s performance comes from the fact he never forgets this, even when Dicky is at his worst. In fact, Russell’s whole film works because that warmth and love everyone feels for Micky is never forgotten and never weaponised by Russell into helping us make moral judgements about the characters. Nor does it forget that Micky may sometimes hate his family, but he never stops loving and needing them.

A weaker film would have stressed the trailer-trash greed of Melissa Leo’s Alice. Leo (who also scored an Oscar and famously dropped the f-bomb on live TV, condemning the ceremony to a permanent time delayed broadcast ever since) is in many ways playing an awful character: controlling, nakedly favouring Eklund over his brother, quick to judge, rude and aggressive. She’s never truly likeable – but Russell’s film understands everything she does is motivated by love. She genuinely wants the best for Micky, even while she pushes him into bad fights and never listens to him. She tries to protect him, and expresses this in destructive selfishness.

In many ways she’s just like Micky’s girlfriend Charlene, who recognises early that Micky’s family (who have turned him into a timid hen-pecked type) can’t be trusted to run his whole career, but who also subtly pushes herself into Alice’s place as the leading decision-making influence in his life. Very well played by Amy Adams (who lost the Oscar to Leo), Charlene is smart, sexy, loving but just as determined that it’s her way or the highway.

What Micky needs to do, the film carefully (if rather safely) outlines, is take the best qualities of all his influences. It’s Eklund’s “job” to realise Micky needs everyone he loves singing from the same hymn-sheet. It needs compromise and putting other people first. It makes for a nice little paean to the importance of family relationships, founded on forgiveness and admitting when you are wrong. Micky forgives his mother and brother for their selfishness: they, in turn, acknowledge their mistakes. Eklund is crucial here: Bale is again superb as a man who suddenly realises pride has nearly ruined his life and embraces the junior role in the relationship with his brother.

Sure, none of this reinvents this wheel, but it still makes for engaging and rather sweet drama. Russell mixes it with some neat stylistic flourishes that don’t overwhelm the film. It’s shot with an edgy, handheld immediacy reflecting its street roots. The fights are shot with old TV cameras, so that invented footage can fuse with 90s HBO coverage. Russell of course gets great performances from his actors, as he always does.

The Fighter is in many ways predictable. But it wears its heart very much on its sleeve, and Wahlberg deserves credit for assembling it and for giving a quiet, generous performance at the centre of it. And the film’s commitment to the idea that, no matter the problems in our families, we can all find the courage to admit our mistakes and pull in the same direction remains heartwarming.

Ali (2001)

Ali (2001)

Will Smith captures The Greatest in a film that misses the fire and passion of Muhammad Ali

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Will Smith (Muhammad Ali), Jamie Foxx (Drew Bundini Brown), Jon Voight (Howard Cosell), Mario van Peebles (Malcolm X), Ron Silver (Angelo Dundee), Jeffrey Wright (Howard Bingham), Mykelti Williamson (Don King), Jada Pinkett Smith (Sonji Roy), Nona Gaye (Khalilah Ali), Michael Michele (Veronica Porché), Michael Bentt (Sonny Liston), James Toney (Joe Frazier), Charles Shufford (George Foreman), Joe Morton (Chauncey Eskridge), Barry Shabaka Henley (Herbert Muhammad)

There is perhaps no greater sportsman of the 20th century than Muhammad Ali. Not for nothing did he call himself “The Greatest”. His impact on his sport is unrivalled, and his impact on our culture almost matches it. He’s one of those titanic figures that, even if you don’t care a jot for boxing, you know exactly who he is. Ali approved the film – and even more so, Smith’s performance – in Mann’s film that covers ten turbulent years in Ali’s life, from winning the title and changing his name, to refusing the Vietnam draft and losing his boxing licence and title, to reclaiming the title again in  the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle”.

If there is a major flaw about Ali, it’s that Ali was a man who was about so much more than just boxing – but Ali struggles to be more than a film about a boxer. It’s hard today to look at the film and not think that a black director would have had more connection with the emotional, cultural and political turmoil that defined Ali’s life in the 60s and 70s. Mann mounts all this well – and gives it plenty of empathy in the film – but his outsider perspective perhaps contributes to the film’s coldness.

Coldness is the prime flaw of the film. There was no sportsman larger than life than Ali. No public figure who demanded attention more, no boxer who fought his battles as much with wit, convictions and passion as well as fists as Ali. A film of his life needs to capture some of this magic alchemy: it needs to feel like a film that conveys the man Ali was. While there is no doubt there was a melancholy in Ali, a quiet inscrutability behind the pizzazz, this film leans too much into this. It does this while never really telling us anything about Ali’s inner life.

As two marriages are formed and collapse, we don’t get an understanding of what drew Ali to, and caused him to turn away from, these women. His relationship with the Nation of Islam ebbs and flows throughout, but other than a few on-the-nose statements from Ali, we don’t get an idea of how his faith defines him. We get his brave stand against serving in the Vietnam war, but not the emotional and intellectual conviction behind it (other than parading a series of famous quotes).

The film is packed with famous black figures – from Malcolm X to rival boxers and Ali’s support team – his father and family, not to mention three of his wives, but the relationship the film is most invested in is Ali’s mutual appreciation/attention-feeding verbal duels with boxing correspondent Howard Cosell (a pitch-perfect vocal and physical impersonation by Jon Voight). There feels something wrong about this film about a black icon, that his relationship with a white man feels the best defined.

But then it’s also a flaw with the film that its most striking, inventive and memorable sequences are all pitch-perfect recreations of filmed events. Will Smith perfectly captures the vocal and physical grace of Ali, and brilliantly brings to life his interviews with Cosell and his larger-than-life press conferences. The boxing matches are compellingly filmed, a perfect mix of slow-mo and immersive angles (they were largely fought for real, with few punches pulled). Ali’s final KO of Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, after several rounds of exhausting Rope-a-dope, is punch-the-air in its triumphal filming and scintillating excitement. But all of this stuff you could actually watch for real today. How essential is a film that uses actors to recreate, with better camera angles and superior editing, stuff that was filmed when it actually happened? Essentially if I want to see Ali stunning the world with his words, or sending Foreman to the canvas, would I choose to watch the man himself, or Will Smith’s perfect impersonation of him doing it?

There is nothing wrong with Will Smith’s performance though. For all his Oscar-winning work in King Richard, this is his finest performance. Bulked up to an impressive degree (Smith spent a year preparing for the film), he’s got Ali’s movements in and out of the ring to a tee and the voice is an unparalleled capture of The Greatest’s. It’s a transformative, exact performance – Smith has just the right force of character for the patter, but also brings the part a soulful depth that the film struggles to explore further. It’s a superb performance.

Enough to make you wish this was in a better, more passionate film. Ali was at the centre of a storm of civil rights and class war in America. He became the public face of a black community struggling to make its voice heard, sick of tired of being treated like second-class citizens by a country they were expected to die for in battle. The politics of the time is lost – Mario van Peebles has a wonderful scene as a troubled Malcolm X, but even he feels like a neutered figure – and the cultural impact of Ali is diluted.

The film ends with captions that dwell on Ali’s later boxing career and his marriages. That’s fine. But this a man who was so much more than what he just did in the ring. He used his position to take a stand on vital issues in America, at huge personal cost, when thousands of others would have settled down to mouth platitudes and make money. He took on the government and refused a compromise that would have allowed him to continue boxing, because he felt the war and America’s domestic policies were wrong. He was a brave leader of men, at a time of furious injustice. The film conveys the facts, but none of the glorious passion. It’s a photocopy of Ali, which is why its best bits are recreations of filmed events. It can’t quite understand or communicate the tumultuous feelings behind racial injustice in the 60s and 70s. It could – it should – have been so much more.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Oscar-winning sucker punch (literally) movie as a woman goes against the odds to make her boxing dreams come true

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Dangerous Dillard), Mike Colter (“Big” Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), Brian F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Marcus Chait (JD Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Pena (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s manager)

Spoilers: I thought the end of Million Dollar Baby was pretty well known, but when I watched it with my wife, I realised half-way through she had no idea where it was going. I’ll be discussing it, so consider yourself warned!

We know what to expect from most Sports stories don’t we? A plucky underdog fights the odds and emerges triumphant, winning the big match or going the distance when everyone doubted them. So it’s not a surprise Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female-Rocky. It had all the ingredients: Swank as a dreamer from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks, tough but humble and decent; Eastwood as the grizzled trainer; a working-class backdrop; a struggle to put their pasts behind them on the road to glory. Then, imagine what a sucker punch the final act of the film is when you suddenly realise you’ve not been watching a feel-good drama, but the entrée to a heart-wrenching euthanasia story.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has spent months persuading grouchy boxing trainer Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Frankie suffers from a string of lifelong regrets, from the daughter that returns his letters unread to not ending a fight decades ago that saw best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) blinded in one eye. Frankie’s resistance is eventually worn down by Maggie’s persistence and the two form a close bond. Maggie is on fire in the ring – until a foul punch leads to a terrible fall leaving her paralysed from the neck down. With Maggie having lost everything that gave her life meaning, how will Frankie respond when she asks him to end her life?

Of course, the clues should be there earlier that we are not about to settle down for a triumphant Rocky II-style yarn. Eastwood’s (self-composed) maudlin score constantly works against the action, until we realise it is sub-consciously preparing us. Expectations are overturned: Frankie’s reluctance to let his fighter “Big” Willie (Mike Colter) go for a title shot – hesitation that lasts so long, eventually Willie hires a new manager – is shown to be misjudged when Willie wins. Dunn spends hours in church every day, plagued with guilt about misdeeds he can’t begin to put into words. Maggie’s family are not a supportive working-class bubble, but trailer-trash dole-scum who react to Maggie buying them with house with fury as it may affect their (unmerited) benefit cheques. We even get several shots of the stool that will eventually play a crucial role in crippling Maggie.

What the film is actually building to in its opening 90 minutes is not a story of triumph, but how a close relationship builds between a man who has lost his family and a woman whose family is a grasping horror story. Eastwood charts this with a carefully judged pace, delivering one of his finest performances as the guarded and grouchy Frankie, who uses his gruff exterior to protect himself from the possible hurt of emotional commitment. Because it’s clear Frankie actually cares very deeply, frequently going the extra mile to help people, even while complaining about it.

It’s that buried heart, that draws him towards the determined and good-natured Maggie. Rather like Frankie, Hilary Swank makes clear in her committed performance Maggie’s optimism and enthusiasm is as much of a shield as Frankie’s gruffness. She knows that she’s nothing to her family except a meal ticket and her entire life seems to have been one of loneliness, working dead-end jobs to funnel money to her mother at the cost of any life of her own. Switching away from her grinning enthusiasm leaves her in danger of staring at her own life and seeing what a mess it is.

With their two very different shields, these two characters are exactly what the other needs and one of the film’s principle delights is to see them slowly confiding in each other, sharing their vulnerabilities and filling the void their own families have left in their lives. This all takes place inside a conventional “sports movie” structure, which writer Paul Haggis almost deliberately doubles down on, as Maggie builds her skills, via training montages and Frankie starts to relax about sending people into the ring to have seven bells beaten out of them and dreams about one more shot.

This all means it hurts even more when that (literal) sucker punch comes. Eastwood’s film doesn’t shirk from the horrors of Maggie’s disability – re-enforced by the previous 90 minutes establishing how crucial movement and reflexes are to boxing, and how this element in particular helps give her life meaning. She’s covered with bed sores, can’t breathe without a respirator, it takes over an hour to lift her into a wheelchair (which she cannot operate) and eventually her infected leg is amputated. Her family visit only to get her to sign over her assets (she tells them where to get off). She is reduced to biting through her own tongue to try and bleed to death, meaning she is left sedated to prevent self-harm.

It’s all more for Frankie to feel guilty about. Although the film could have given even more time to exploring the complex issues – and moral clashes – around the right to die, it does make very clear the crushing burden of guilt and the impact his final decision will have on him. In fact, it would have benefited from spending more time on this and giving more time to O’Byrne’s priest (who quite clearly states that it’s wrong), to help give more definition to the arguments around assisted suicide (I wonder if Eastwood’s agnostic views came into play here).

Perhaps the film spends a little too long on its initial – even deliberately formulaic – rags-to-riches boxing story. In its boxing club vignettes, you can see the roots of the film in a series of short stories by former boxing trainer FX Toole. Mackie’s cocky boxy and Baruchel’s gentle intellectually disabled would-be boxer run through the film play like short story anecdotes. The narrative is linked together by narration from Morgan Freeman. It’s a natural fit for Freeman – essentially a semi-reprise of Red in Shawshank – and fits him like a glove (it was no surprise he won an Oscar). But trimming this content could have given more time to the films closing moral dilemma.

Which doesn’t change the impact it has. Eastwood’s low-key style – with its drained-out colours and piano chords – make a perfect fit, and its expertly played by himself and Swank (who also won an Oscar). Even on a second viewing, Million Dollar Baby still carries a real impact, particularly as you appreciate how subtly the sucker punch that floored so many viewers first time around is built up to.

King Richard (2021)

King Richard (2021)

Richard Williams creates two of the greatest tennis stars ever in this easy-viewing star vehicle

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Cast: Will Smith (Richard Williams), Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene “Brandy” Price), Saniyya Sidney (Venus Williams), Demi Singleton (Serena Williams), Jon Bernthal (Rick Macci), Tony Goldwyn (Paul Cohen), Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew (Tunde Price), Danielle Lawson (Isha Price), Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price)

Sports movies have a very reliable formula. There’s the initial promise, early success, adversity, obstacles, a moment of doubt, a renewal of commitment and a final success. I think it’s fair to say that King Richard pretty much hits all the beats you expect. In fact, its pretty much exactly the film you expect it to be when it starts and doubles down hard on the charisma and charm of its star.

King Richard tells the story of how the Williams Sisters, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), took their very first steps towards dominating the world of tennis, as told through the eyes of their father Richard (Will Smith). Richard Williams had been determined from almost the moment his children were born, that he would never stop working (and push them) to build lives that would take them away from the working-class ghetto he grew up in. Teaching himself tennis coaching, from the moment they can hold a racket the girls are coached. But, being working class and black in a white-middle-class sport, Richard must work night-and-day to win professional coaching and playing opportunities for his daughters. Not to mention, struggling to ensure that they don’t forget their roots or get chewed up and spat out by the sport.

First and foremost, King Richard is a showpiece for Will Smith. The part fits him like a glove: Williams a larger-than-life, force-of-“Will” role that feels about 2/3rds Williams and 1/3rd Smith. With Williams fast-talking patter, never-give-up determination and absolute commitment to protecting his loved ones, the role plays to all Smith’s strengths. Smith gives a quintessential movie-star performance, which to-be-honest often feels like a Will Smith personality role (the modern equivalent of a Cary Grant performance), but is very entertaining because few people are as good at crafting their personae to benefit a movie as Smith is. Smith is heartfelt, earnest, loveable, sometimes slapable (Note: I wrote that before Smith’s slap-heard-around-the-world was forever attached to his Oscar-winning performance), but always a charming guy you root for.

Which is odd, as Richard Williams is a man with a mixed reputation. He was a demanding, argumentative, often controlling presence who irritated and alienated far more people on the tour than he befriended. Some saw him as a self-promoter, others as a man at times causing problems for his daughter’s careers. King Richard doesn’t shy away from showing these qualities – the awkwardness, the temper, the selfishness, the arrogance – but presents them all in the best possible light. The film is purest hagiography and Richard Williams is always vindicated in all his calls.

Awkwardly the film is also determined to give him all the credit for the Williams’ sisters success. Now there is merit in this – and the script was developed with the sister’s input, so it feels a bit presumptuous to get angry on their behalf. The sisters would never have become what they are if their father had not put rackets in their hands so young and invested hours in training them. Similarly, they would not have been as fully-rounded people without his constant mantra about family, humility and hard work. But also, they did have quite a bit of talent themselves – and certainly they profited from lessons they picked up from the other coaches they worked with.

However, one of the points King Richard is gently making – and it is gently made, as if the film was worried its crowd-pleasing potential might have been affected if it banged this drum too hard – is that Williams had to be a domineering figure because he was fighting against a racial divide in the sport. He feels out of place in the tennis country clubs because he is. No one else on the junior tour is anything other than white and well off. Every coach and trainer is applying methods that have worked for affluent middle-class athletes, without considering any adjustment might be needed for two young women coming from a totally different background.

You can argue the hagiography is partially a course correction from years of the only black father and coach on the tour being denounced as uppity, loud-mouthed, self-obsessed and intrusive. Its still made clear he shares these traits with many other tour parents, but adding to it a massive dose of supportive parenting. There are moments when the film addresses how Williams’ obsession that he knows best might just be starting to run the risk of alienating his daughters: in particular Aunjanue Ellis delivers a blistering late speech (which probably got her an Oscar nomination by itself, so compellingly is it performed) where she lays out in no-uncertain-terms Williams many character flaws and damaging behaviours. (Coincidentally the film’s most compelling dramatic scene).

Maybe a bit of hagiography is what we need from a film designed to be an uplifting, triumph against the odds and celebration of one man’s fatherly love and devotion to give his daughters a chance to change their stars. The film is professionally directed by Green and some of the titbits of the sisters early training (throwing American footballs to build service strength among others) is fascinating.

The film is probably at least twenty minutes too long and starts at some points to repeat the same beats again and again. It doesn’t really do anything new and is exactly the sort of film you could predict it being. But it has some good performances, Smith is at the top of his (Oscar-winning) game, and it is an enjoyable, if predictable, feel-good watch.

Rocky (1976)

Rocky (1976)

Doubters and some very steep steps are conquered in the Best Picture winning Granddaddy of Sports movies

Director: John G. Avildsen

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Pennino), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burgess Meredith (Mickey Goodmill), Thayer David (Miles Jergens), Joe Spinell (Tony Gazzo), Tony Burton (Tony “Duke” Evers), Pedro Lovell (Spider Rico)

How many people have run up those steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art? So many, they’ve renamed them “the Rocky Steps” – and placed a statue of Stallone (from Rocky III) there. You can be sure everyone hummed Gonna Fly Now while they did it. It’s all a tribute to the impact of Rocky, the iconic smash hit that led to no less than seven sequels (and counting!) and, arguably, kickstarted the 80s in Hollywood (a decade Stallone would stand tall across with both Rocky and Rambo). The original Rocky mixes genre-defining delights and a feel-good, crowd-pleasing story with a surprisingly low-key setting that deals in a bit of Loachesque reality and social commentary.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a journeyman southpaw boxer, fallen on hard times. He’s making ends meet with a bit of loan shark enforcement (although of course he’s far too nice to actually break any bones) and getting seven bells knocked out of him at low-key fights. His trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) thinks he’s wasting his talent, and Rocky spends the day casting puppy dog eyes at Adrian (Talia Shire) sister of Rocky’s chancer best friend Paulie (Burt Young). But Rocky’s life changes overnight when Heavyweight Champion of the World Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) picks him at random as the nobody he will fight in a title bout (to get Apollo some free publicity). Can Rocky dedicate himself to training so he can “go the distance”?

Surely everyone knows by now, don’t they? The big fight only takes up the last ten minutes of the film. What we’ve spent our time doing beforehand is watching possibly the one of the best ever packaged feel-good stories, full of lovable characters and punch-the-air moments, directed with a smooth, professional (but personality free) charm by Avildsen. Rocky genuinely looked and felt like a little slice of Capra, a fairy tale triumph for the little guy struggling less against the world and more against his own doubts.

And it overcame some real heavyweights to win Best Picture: it knocked aside All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network in a shock win. Is Rocky better than those films? No. But is it more fun to watch? Yes, it probably is – and I would be willing to bet many more people have come back to it time and time again. It was also a triumph for Stallone, a jobbing actor, who produced a first draft of the script in three days and fought tooth and nail to make sure he played the lead.

And Stallone’s performance is absolutely central to its success (can you imagine what it would have been like with, say, James Caan in the role?). Stallone gives Rocky exactly the sort of humble, shy, sweetness that makes him easy to root for. Rocky is no genius, but he’s loyal, polite, well-meaning and Stallone taps into his little-used qualities of softness and naivety. Rocky is lovable because, for all the punching, he’s very gentle – just look at him make a mess of money collecting or the way he talks like a little kid with his pets. Stallone has a De Niroish – yes seriously! – quality here: he absent-mindedly shadow boxes throughout and gives a semi-articulate passion to his outburst at Mickey. His romance with Adrian is intimate and gentle. The whole performance feels lived in and real.

Real is actually what the whole film feels like – despite the fact it’s a ridiculous fairy tale of a boy who becomes a prince for a day. It helps that its shot deep in the streets of Philadelphia, on the cheap and on the fly in neighbourhoods and locations that feel supremely unstaged (Avildsen avoided the cost of extras by frequently shooting at night or very early morning). Even that run up the stairs was a semi-improvised moment. Rocky’s world is a recognisable working-class one that for all its roughness, also feels like a community in a way Ken Loach might be proud of (even the loan sharks are easy-going). Day-to-day the film manages to capture some of the feel of a socio-realist film with a touch of working-class charm.

It also makes a lovely backdrop to the genuinely sweet romance that grounds the film: and a recognition of the film’s smarts that a great crowd-pleaser needs a big dollop of romance alongside a big slice of action. Very adorably played with Talia Shire (original choices Carrie Snodgrass and Susan Sarandon were considered too movie-star striking), Adrian feels like a slightly mousy figure (and she is as sweet as Rocky) but also has a strength to her. She’s led a tough life as sister to the demanding Paulie (and Burt Young does a great job of making a complete shitbag strangely lovable and even a bit vulnerable), but it’s not stopped her feeling love. She and Rocky complement each other perfectly – gentle, shy people, who have something to prove to themselves and the world.

Is there a sweeter first date in movies than that solo trip to the ice rink? Cost cutting saved the day here (it was intended to be packed), that stolen few minutes skating while Rocky hurriedly tries to find out a much about Adrian as he can (an attendant counting down the time they have as they go), Adrian both charmed and bashful. It’s a lovely scene and goes a long way to us giving these characters the sort of emotional devotion that would keep audiences coming back for decades.

That and those boxing fights of course. Rocky’s final fight sets a template most of the rest of the films would pretty much follow beat for beat. But it’s still fun watching Rocky go toe-to-toe against all odds. Particularly as we know what is important to Rocky is not victory but proving something to himself. It helps as well that Stallone still looks like an underdog of sorts (over the next ten years he would turn himself into a slab of muscular stone).

Opposite him is Apollo Creed, with Carl Weathers channelling his very best Mohammad Ali. The underdog story makes for fine drama, and Rocky is superably packaged: there is a reason why so many other films essentially copied it. From montage, to an “against all odds” fight to Burgess Meredith’s grizzled trainer (a part you’d see time-and-again in the future from different respected character actors) there is a superb formula Rocky takes and repackages from classic films of the 40s and 50s and re-presents to huge and successful effect.

And it works because it’s so entertaining. Stallone is hugely winning in the lead role – more sweet and sensitive than he would be in later Rocky films (traits he would allow himself to rediscover in the more recent films) and it’s a perfectly packaged feel-good entertainment. But it’s also got a grounded sense of realism and reality, with an affecting love story. It’s one of the first – and best – films of the 80s, where formula and crowd-pleasing would be king.

The Color of Money (1986)

Newman and Cruise set the table in The Color of Money

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Paul Newman (“Fast” Eddie Felsen), Tom Cruise (Vincent Lauria), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Carmen), Helen Shaver (Janelle), John Turturro (Julian), Bill Cobbs (Orvis), Forest Whitaker (Amos), Keith McGready (Grady Sessions)

The Hustler is one of Newman’s most iconic roles. It’s remembered for his cocksure cool, leaning across the table and dispatching balls with a twinkling smirk. What people don’t remember is that The Hustler is actually more of a kitchen-sink drama than a Rat Pack party. It deals with depression, assault, corruption, injustice and suicide. It’s not even remotely a laugh a minute. The Color of Money is a belated sequel, that feels made by people who remember their impression of what The Hustler was, but don’t actually remember the tone of the film itself. But then, Scorsese intended from the very start to make an entertainment to showcase a star, so I’m sure he knew that making a real tonal companion to the original film was always going to be a no-no.

It’s 25 years since “Fast Eddie” Felsen (Paul Newman) was banished from pool clubs throughout the land by gangsters. He now earns a living selling booze to clubs, largely so he can hang out pool clubs and mentor and stake the ‘hustler’s and stars of tomorrow. The kid who catches his eye is Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) an exceptionally gifted pool player with a cocksure confidence and a love of the game, that perhaps reminds Eddie more than a little of himself. Vincent, and his girlfriend Carmen’s (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) grifting skills leave a lot to be desired: but Eddie sees promise and takes them out on a road trip to train them up and make a fortune.

It’s a fitting title, as it’s pretty clear that The Color of Money was the main thing on Scorsese’s mind when he made this. Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable and well-made star vehicle, but it’s also the only time Scorsese was a hired gun working for a star who made films he grew up watching. Scorsese has spoken openly that his main aim here was to bring it in on time and on budget (he made it faster and cheaper than that), in order to help win studio backing for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Ironically of course, most people have far fonder memories of The Color of Money than that film, but then this is a film designed to entertain not challenge.)

It’s a fairly traditional and even predictable storyline. The mentor and the mentee, the latter jaded but rediscovering some of his old fire from the callow exuberance of the other. To be honest not very much actually happens in the film other than pool games and some predictable feuds before the final reconciliation. Inevitable lessons are learned and understandings are achieved. Compared to The Hustler, this is a very callow piece of work indeed, a straight entertainment vehicle that takes the fun, memorable beats of the original and crafts a whole film around them. In many ways you could argue it’s as much a sort of spiritual sequel to Newman’s work in The Sting as anything else.

But Scorsese shoots the hell out of it, so there is always something to look at. No end of editing and camera tricks are used for the pool games, which are shot like action sequences. Swift pans, tracking shots, sharp camera spins are all used to turn a game of knocking nine balls into pockets into something epic. Interesting shots abound, especially several sequences where a camera is mounted on a car bonnet to product an odd Steadicam effect. This is work way beyond a journey-man-pro director, but compared to Scorsese’s other works it’s minor. Scorsese opens the film by delivering a voiceover introducing nine-ball-pool, but the film never feels personal.

What it is, is a triumph for its two leading men. The year before Newman had won an honorary ‘career’ Oscar, which he accepted with a slight air of surprised resentment. No wonder, since he won a ‘real’ Oscar a year later for this reprise. To be honest, the film doesn’t ask anything particularly demanding of Newman, compared to the heights he had achieved in, for instance, The Verdict. It’s a lot of charm and aged confidence, mixed with a mentor exasperation and an unspoken concern that his powers are fading. Newman does spice things up with some interesting character work – there is a great scene when Eddie berates himself for being suckered by pool shark Amos (also a beautiful cameo from Forest Whitaker), humiliated for having lost his touch. But, whereas the first film was a below-the-skin character study, this is more like a victory parade for a charismatic star who even signs off the film by stating “I’m back!”. He’s great but not challenged.

Cruise raises game as he always does when working with legends (see also his work with Hoffman and Nicholson). The film captures perfectly both his cocksure confidence and the gentleness and vulnerability that Cruise manages to hide beneath it. You only need to see how vulnerable and scared Vincent is of being abandoned by the more sophisticated Carmen, to know that his karate moves with a pool cue while singing along to Werewolves of London is a front of a young man wanting to look like a big one to the world. Mastrantonio is pretty good in a fairly simplistic role, that is essentially a twist on a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.

The Color of Money offers up fairly predictable charms and plot twists and no real surprises at all. While its original film was a piece of neo-realism tinged social drama, this is a brash entertainment, stuffed with pop songs and charismatic actors doing their thing. All pulled together by a director who wanted to prove he could make something as glossy and empty as the next man. Entertaining but forgettable.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014)

Liev Schreiber and Tobey Maguire recreate Spassky/Fischer in Ed Zwick’s pointless chess drama

Director: Ed Zwick

Cast: Tobey Maguire (Bobby Fischer), Liev Schreiber (Boris Spassky), Peter Sarsgaard (Father Bill Lombardy), Michael Stuhlbarg (Paul Marshall), Lily Rabe (Joan Fischer), Robin Weigert (Regina Fischer)

In the 1960s and 70s, Chess suddenly became world news. Like the space race before it, it was effectively a way for the USA and USSR to combat each other without the risky side effect of blowing up the whole world. The USSR had all the best players: until American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer emerged to shatter this monopoly. In 1972 the world seemed to come to a stop to watch the world championship clash between Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in Reykjavik. Ed Zwick’s film attempts to bring together the personal and the political – two superpowers using a game as a proxy for war – into an enlightening package. It fails.

The film opens with Fischer trashing his apartment in search for bugs on the eve of the 1972 final before flashing back in time. You’d expect the film to give us an idea of what bought our “hero” to this point. Zwick’s film utterly fails to do this. Now Fischer – very well played by an aggressively prickly Tobey Maguire – was a hugely troubled man. Though never formally diagnosed some combination of paranoia, OCD and a myriad other personality problems meant he was never more than a step away from self-destruction. Despite this he was deeply driven by an ambition to be the best chess player in the world. Its rich material, but the film never begins to get to grips with Fischer.

Could this be because it wants to tell an uplifting story – the film is really building towards the standing ovation Spassky gives Fischer in game 6 at the 1972 championship when Fischer whipped him in about 40 moves of perfect play – but is struggling with the fact that Fischer himself is deeply unsympathetic. A paranoid conspiracy freak who even by the standards of the 1960s was an aggressive, virulent anti-Semite (Fischer would later match Mel Gibson in his anti-Semitic tirades, blaming Zionism for everything from 9/11 down). A bully who refused to interact with anything except on his own terms, who cut all friends and family from his life for the most minor transgressions. There is no insight given here at all, or suggestion of what was wrong with Fischer.

It’s hard to hang a “triumph against the odds” structure – as Zwick’s unimaginative and conventional film tries to – around this. A far more interesting film would have used the 1972 tournament as an Act 2 triumph and then explored in more depth Fischer’s long spiral of self-destruction that would see him as a bearded eccentric ranting against Jews and America, in exile in Iceland. A film like that would also have then been able to properly do service to the idea of Fischer as a pawn of American state interests, who celebrate him when they want to rub the Soviet nose in it, but then drop him as soon as his purpose is served.

Instead, the film becomes formulaic and empty, leaving us with the impression that we learn nothing about Fischer at all. Why did this man of Jewish descent hate Jewish people so much? Was it self-loathing? What motivated him to seemingly self-destruct his own career so regularly? Was it a fear of being beaten? We have no idea. Instead that opening scene of Fischer destroying his apartment tells us everything we learn about the man over the course of the film. He remains an enigma – and since he’s also deeply unpleasant (the film skirts a little around how much) and we don’t get given any rich material to understand why he’s like this, he becomes a tedious figure to spend time with.

Zwick’s film also fails to communicate the cold war motivations behind this. Although there are the odd shots of the powers-that-be watching on TV in the Kremlin and the White House, we get no sense of how or why these powers are using chess to promote their own ideology. The film is endlessly reliable on vintage and reconstructed newsreel footage to constantly tell us directly things it can’t work out how to do with dialogue, from the political situation to chess moves. You learn nothing about the Cold War from this film. Michael Stuhlbarg’s lawyer turned promoter for Fischer states openly that he wants to use Fischer to show up the Russkies – but that blunt statement is it.

Instead the film is only really interesting when it is effectively recreating footage from the 1972 championship. And when a film’s strong points are recreating real events perfectly, you know you are in trouble. Zwick’s film lacks ideas, a compelling plot, insight or invention. It suffers badly today when compared to the far more dynamic and insightful The Queen’s Gambit (whose lead character is a heavily fictionalised female Fischer). Zwick’s film is him at his plodding, middle-brow worst, presenting a would-be epic shorn of anything of actual interest of controversy. The only thing that redeems it are decent performances from Maguire, Sarsgaard and Schreiber. Otherwise, this is an empty mess that tells you nothing at all about anything. You could checkmate it in about four moves.

Invictus (2009)

Morgan Freeman perfectly captures Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar), Tony Kgoroge (Jason Tshabalala), Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko), Julian Lewis Jones (Eitenne Feyder), Patrick Mofokeng (Linga Moonsamy), Matt Stern (Hendrick Booyens), Marguerite Wheatley (Nerine Winter)

Sometimes, very rarely, a man emerges perfectly suited to his time and place. Perhaps there is no finer example than Nelson Mandela, who emerged from a hellish imprisonment for 27 years on Robben Island to become the first black President of South Africa. The man who could have sparked – and arguably would have had the sympathy of many if he had – a wave of policies that inflicted the same unfairness and injustice on the white population that they had poured onto the black for decades. Instead he chose reconciliation and forgiveness. Can you imagine many other political leaders saying when his people were wrong – and that as their leader, his duty is to tell them so? Invictus would be triumph even if it all it did was remind us of the vision and greatness of Mandela. Fortunately it does more than this.

Like many modern film biographies, the film focuses on a single moment or point in history to explore in microcosm a complex man and his dangerous times. When Mandela (Morgan Freeman) comes to power, South Africa is a country seemingly doomed to division. The whites fear and resent the new power the black population has. The black population is keen on vengeance after years of persecution. Mandela however knows there must be a new way: the hatred propagates only itself, and for the country to move on it must come together as one Rainbow Nation. But in this new nation, there are symbols that are particularly divisive. South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks their green and gold colours a symbol of apartheid, are the most visible of these targets.

But Mandela understood that, to bring the country together, he must ease the fears of the white population that the end of the apartheid meant an apocalypse for everything they held dear. He pushes to preserves the Springboks name and their colours. He gives the team his backing, and enlists Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to help him. Because Mandela knows that the approaching Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa, is a glorious opportunity to show the world that the nation is solving its problems. And Mandela is shrewd enough to know that sport can bring people together in ways few other things can. Against all the odds, rugby will become the tool he will use to start the nation healing.

Eastwood’s film is sentimental in the best possible way. It presents a stirring true-life story with a simplicity and honesty that never overpowers the viewer or hammers them over the head. Eastwood also allows space to show in small but telling ways how dangerously divided this country is. From the Presidential staff who start packing up their desks the morning after Mandela’s win, convinced the new President will show them all the door (wrong), to the slow fusing together into one team of Mandela’s personal security staff (black) and their colleagues from the secret service (all white – many of whom arrested Mandela’s colleagues in the past). Even liberal whites like the Pienaar’s keep a black maid as a servant, while ANC party members push for a sweeping aside of every vestige of the old regime.

It’s a dynamite environment in which a single man can make a difference. And with a combination of the sort of patience you learn from 27 years living in a small cell, charm and an unbelievable willingness to turn the other cheek, Mandela is that man. While Eastwood’s film allows beats to remind us he is just a man – his difficult relationship with his family gains a few crucial scenes – the film is also unabashed in its admiration for this titan. And rightly so. Mandela’s smile, his humbleness and his determination to both do the right thing and to avoid provocation is awe-inspiring (his white security guards are stunned that he seems not to hear the abuse he is showered with when attending a rugby game early in his Presidency – he hears and sees everything, their black colleagues assure them).

Morgan Freeman is practically a Hollywood symbol of dignity and righteousness – if he can play God he can play Mandela – and his portrayal of the great man is a perfect marriage of actor and subject. Capturing Mandela’s speech patterns and physicality perfectly, he also brilliantly seizes on his character. This is a man who can put anyone at their ease, who humbly speaks of his excitement of meeting Pienaar, who we see putting hours into learning the names and backgrounds of every member of the South Africa Rugby squad. He’s a realist who knows that change needs time, political muscle and sometimes a willingness to cut corners and force the issue – but he’s also a man to whom principle drives all. Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance is outstanding.

The strength of the film lies in the simple, stirring hope that it derives from seeing the struggle that even small triumphs need. As we see personal relationships begin to grow – from a security team that segregates itself in their office to eventually enjoying a kick-about together – and the growing sense of community in the nation as the world cup draws near, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in the throat. The film doesn’t overegg this, but allows the moments to speak for themselves.

But it’s also a sport film – possibly the highest profile rugby film since This Sporting Life. The film recreates the drama of that World Cup very well – as well as the intense physicality of rugby as a sport. Matt Damon physically throws himself into it, as well as playing Pienaar with a natural ease carefully allowing his sense of national duty and awareness of being part of something larger than himself to grow (although an Oscar nod is still a little generous). The camera throws us wonderfully into the games, and the film largely manages to avoid the manufactured drama of the game (largely because what happened in real life was often dramatic enough!)

Invictus may not be the most revolutionary film ever made – and catch it in the wrong moment and you might think it was a sentimental journey – but it’s made with a matter-of-fact, low-key charm that I think manages to not overwhelm the heart. Instead it manages to produce a great deal of emotion from its carefully underplaying. With a fantastic performance from Morgan Freeman, it’s a wonderful tribute most of all to a very great man, who changed his country and the world for the better through the power of forgiveness – a power he was able to invest a whole nation with.

The Program (2015)

Ben Foster is the disgraced Lance Armstrong in this functional but insight free biopic The Program

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Guillaume Canet (Michele Ferrari), Denis Menochet (Johan Bruyneel), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu), Laura Donnelly (Emma O’Reilly), Sam Hoare (Stephen Stewart)

In sports there has probably never been an icon who fell so far as Lance Armstrong. Stephen Frears’ film reconstructs the story of Armstrong’s – played by Ben Foster – career, from finding his natural build and ability isn’t enough to win the Tour de France, through cancer diagnosis and recovery and then into his record-breaking run of Tour victories, all achieved off the back of running a comprehensive and professional doping system, and his final fall from grace.

Frears’ film is well-made and stylish and good at capturing the freedom and excitement of professional cycle racing. It’s also a skilled reconstruction of its time period, and a fairly well structured chronicle of events, which it reconstructs from journalist David Walsh’s (played here with a fine sense of moral outrage by Chris O’Dowd) book Seven Deadly Sins. Walsh had written stories for several years questioning Armstrong’s achievements, and Frears’ film puts together the events and testimonies that convince Walsh of Armstrong’s cheating with a documentarian skill.

Where the film fails though is its lack of drama and, crucially, its willingness to use dramatic and creative licence to attempt an exploration of Armstrong’s personality. What drove this cancer survivor to abuse his body with a parade of substances? How did Armstrong balance his passionate campaigning for a cure for a cancer with the lie he was presenting the world of how he didn’t just recover from cancer, he used it as a springboard to become the greatest endurance athlete in the world? Basically, what the film doesn’t really try to do, is get inside the head of its lead character.

Instead, the film follows its title: The Program. There is greater interest in the how of this cheating regime, not the why. Now perhaps in real life Armstrong is the shallow, narcissistic bully he often seems here, obsessed with winning at all costs with no moral quandaries at all. But it hardly makes for entertaining or satisfying drama. Foster is a brilliant physical match – and he captures the ruthless forward-drive of Armstrong very well – but this is a film that doesn’t really scratch the surface of what made Armstrong. We never get a sense of his motivations – or really his reactions as the world tumbles around him.

There is a fascinating story to tell here, but it’s almost as if the film is worried about giving this sinner some feet of clay we can sympathise with (to mix a few metaphors). Instead Armstrong is all chilled front and nothing underneath, and his villainy is so central from day one that we get neither a satisfying sense of a hypocrite unmasked nor of a Promethean fall from grace. 

Actually, Frears may well have been more interested in making a film where Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis was a central character – the devout Christian persuaded to take part in the doping scheme, who becomes Armstrong’s successor only to be immediately discredited in a way Armstrong would not be for years. It’s the tragedy of Landis that really has dramatic potential – a decent man who is well aware what he is doing is wrong, but is too weak to not accept the easy path to glory. It’s this story that has real dramatic potential – and might well have made a better focus for the movie.

The Program isn’t a bad film. It captures the drama of its sport well, and it brings together the events that led to Armstrong’s fall with professional skill. But it’s more of documentary than a drama and to be honest there isn’t much in it that couldn’t be picked up better from actually reading Walsh’s book. There was a lot of potential here – but it needed a film more willing to explore and understand its central character rather than just condemn him as a monster and move on.