Sony Pictures for years was developing a Lance Armstrong biopic. Tonight that story received an ignoble ending. The celebrated athlete will be stripped Friday of his 7 Tour de France titles and banned from cycling for life by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. So I raise the question: Did Hollywood miss its chance to tell a fascinating hero’s story? Or is there now an even more complex and interesting saga? Tonight, in his statement, Lance stressed that he decided to stop fighting the USADA investigation into whether he doped not because of new incriminating evidence but because he was up against a deadline. This was the last night he could decide to keep trying to prove his innocence. In a statement he described the USADA investigation as an “unconstitutional witch hunt” especially after the U.S. Justice Department conducted its own probe and took no action. Tonight’s ending is not neat and tidy: rather, it’s messy and sad. It also should be a movie, albeit a different one from first envisioned.
As a huge TdF fan myself, I think what happened to Armstrong tonight is tragic. I also thought a Lance biopic was a natural back in 2006. So why did it take Hollywood so long to put one together? Billy Gerber, the former Warner Bros President turned film producer, tried to sell it years ago after reading Armstrong’s bestselling book It’s Not About The Bike. fast forward, and producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy got lucky that then Columbia Pictures president of production Matt Tolmach was a cycling fanatic. (He could do some of those Tour De France-type climbs — though not as fast.) Tolmach knew that Armstrong’s unhappy youth, his sports prowess first as a triathlete and then as a cyclist, his cancer battle, his Live Strong yellow wristband campaign, his cancer foundation, his epic seven TdF titles, his cycling rivalries, his love-hate relationship with the Frenchand the sport of cycling, and his battle against doping accusations, made a heckuva tale. So Sony Pictures quietly moved forward with the project.
Immediately Armstrong and Sony got lucky: then Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal wanted to star. There was a slight resemblance between the two guys, and the actor is even a long-time cyclist. He’d even begun training for the film. The European press went into a speculation frenzy when Lance and Jake first showed up together at the 2006 TdF. (Jake even joined the seven-time TdF winner in the Discovery team car for an Individual Time Trial.) Armstrong, his agent Bill Stapleton, Discovery sports manager Johan Bruyneel, and Tour de France Directors Jean Marie Blanc and Christian Prudhomme all had what insiders at the time called “a heart-to-heart discussion” aboard the Discovery bus about whether the Tour would block the project. Obviously the Tour’s assistance, while not required, would have been helpful to the biopic. Gyllenhaal and Armstrong became pals during Jake’s method process to get to know the sports legend.
And, as the many years of doping whispers became louder, the project suddenly went quiet. Now it’s time to resurrect it with a different arc.