Reviewed by ken donnelly
The story of Lance Armstrong is a long and complicated one. It involves more ups and downs and twists and turns than any cycling race. Stephen Frears’ new dramatization provides a comprehensive account of the Armstrong story, beginning in 1992 as he is about to burst onto the scene as a promising, young (clean) rider, and ending with the aftermath of his full admission of guilt and fraud. The story is told in full with no significant event left out. We meet all the characters and experience every infamous event written about by journalists and eyewitnesses over the years.
But who is this the story of exactly? Is it the story of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace? Is it the story of David Walsh’s incredible struggle in pulling him down? Or is it about cheating, winning and doping? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Frears isn’t content with telling just one story. However, we do gain an exhaustive insight into the development of Armstrong’s character; from naïve young cyclist to brave cancer survivor, inspirational champion and inevitably to the greatest cheat the world of sport has ever seen.
But is there something about Armstrong that is inherently evil? A large cohort of people seem to be quite comfortable talking about Armstrong in the same vain as some of the world’s real bad guys. There are moments in the film when we can sense that some things might just be more important to him than winning. Armstrong didn’t have to set up the Livestrong foundation. But he did. Whether or not you think it was a publicity stunt, for a certain period of time, Armstrong inspired a nation and helped a great deal of people which is shown quite poignantly in the film. The question is, do the means justify the ends? Did the inspirational rise of Armstrong outweigh the damage of the fall?
“The Program” only really comes to life as David Walsh, played excellently by Chris O’Dowd, becomes more central to the plot. Up until that point the film feels like a brief summary of Armstrong’s career.
Walsh was the man who got the ball rolling in terms of bringing Armstrong down. In “The Program” it seems as though Walsh is the only one who queries Armstrong’s unprecedented success. In reality there were quite a number of journalists around the world who had been critical of Armstrong, notably Walsh’s Sunday Times colleague Paul Kimmage who doesn’t feature in the film. It was a shame we didn’t get to see a recreation of the iconic press conference rows instigated by Kimmage.
Maybe the producers worried that you simply couldn’t get any more tense and dramatic as the real thing. Ben Foster’s magnificent portrayal of Lance Armstrong is the film’s highlight. Not only does he fully resemble Armstrong but he has every mannerism nailed on. Whether it’s his stern and arrogant behaviour at press conferences or his malicious treatment of those who get in his way, Foster has spectacularly invoked the spirit of sport’s greatest villain. It’s one of the most convincing depictions of a real life character in recent film history.
The blood doping scenes demonstrate the absolute devotion of cyclists to doping. Lying back in a hotel room shooting the breeze, all the while being hooked up to a bag of blood. This is not a hospital and these men are not sick. It is all a routine part of the program. In the Armstrong era, this is what cycling means. However, the ringleader of it all, Dr. Michele Ferrari, is portrayed as a kind of mad scientist who just wants to cause mayhem. In simple terms, he is a truly ridiculous character. We are presented with the widely accepted narrative that nobody can win the Tour without taking banned substances. This, however, doesn’t absolve Armstrong of the blame. Armstrong was not just a pawn in the vast doping ring and in no way was he merely trying to level the playing field. He is presented to us as a ‘win at all costs character’. Lance is a winner first and foremost. Anything outside of winning such as ethics or morality are placed firmly on the backseat.
The only semblance of morality from within cycling circles comes from Jesse Plemons’ character, Lance’s team-mate Floyd Landis. Plemons, of ‘Breaking Bad’ fame, again masters the art of playing the troubled weirdo. Landis’ devout Mennonite Christian background proves to be his downfall. No man with an ounce of conscience can survive in the game. It is through Armstrong’s interactions with Landis where we begin to realise the detached monstrosity that Armstrong has become.
Where “The Program” appears to fall down is in its insistence on telling the full story. This leads to many of the scenarios feeling overly simplified and unrealistic. Too many of these quick-fire scenarios are brought together to create a feature film that would overwhelm anyone ignorant of the real life story. Do we really need to know that Lance Armstrong doesn’t like eating the breakfast cereal that he is so enthusiastically endorsing? We are even briefly thrown into the story of the financial implications of Armstrong’s fraud towards the end of the film. Dustin Hoffman cameos as a worried investor in what can only be described as a confusing and superfluous ten minutes of film.
For fans of cycling “The Program” is not a must-see. It tells a story you should already know, and tells it just as you know it. For those who want to get to know the story it is a great starting point. If there is one reason to watch this film it is the performance of Ben Foster. If there’s a second, it’s Chris O’Dowd.