THE PROGRAM. Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet. Directed by Stephen Frears. 103 minutes. M (Mature themes and coarse language).
‘The Program’ recounts the trickery and backroom deals that went into the greatest sporting deception in history: Lance Armstrong’s systemic drug cheating throughout his seven consecutive Tour de France victories. It will hold limited interest for viewers interested in cycling (but uninformed about the details of the case), but more important is its portrayal of a driven but deeply flawed man.
The films opens in 1993, when a young and cocky Armstrong is facing up to his first Tour. He is interviewed by passionate journalist David Walsh, who admires the young man’s confidence and desire to succeed, but is doubtful about his prospects. As expected, Armstrong is comprehensively beaten by many others, his body shape unsuited to the extreme endurance event.
In the following years, Armstrong visits controversial sports physician Doctor Ferrari in an attempt to join his contentious training program, but is turned away due to his physique. Despite this, he begins a doping program largely of his own design using EPO, with the full cooperation and participation of teammates and staff. He continues to race professionally with a number of teams, though without great success in the Tour.
Tragedy strikes when Armstrong is diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer in 2003. His miraculous recovery has been well-documented, not only to survive a near fatal illness, but to get back on his bike post-recovery and begin training once more. Stripped of much of his body weight, he is taken in by Doctor Ferrari and started on a comprehensive performance enhancing drug regime. He builds a new team around himself, the fabled US Postal team, with all members also on Ferrari’s ‘program’, and begins an unprecedented string on Tour wins from 1998 to 2005. However, with Walsh and the US Anti-Doping Agency now doggedly pursuing Armstrong’s lies, and a lofty house of cards built upon the fabled ‘omertà’ within professional cycling, it was only a matter of time until it all came tumbling down in spectacular fashion in 2012.
‘The Program’ is never simplified to be the study of an evil character, despite the reprehensible things Armstrong did in the lengthy course of his deceit, including chronic lying, the bullying of competitors and teammates alike, and pursuing crippling legal action against anyone who spoke out. The film never gives him redemption or forgiveness, which can be said to reflect the reality of what transpired, but Ben Foster plays an Armstrong haunted by his own decisions. His intensity in denying drug charges, practised in front of the mirror, is juxtaposed with his shame at having to mislead everyone time and time again. His teammate Floyd Landis gets a different treatment. Raised in a devout Mennonite family, Landis’ faith appears to loom over his acts of dishonesty, and he ultimately plays a vital role in the USADA’s case by testifying against Armstrong. The contrast between the men is interesting, though director Stephen Frears muddies Landis’ motivations with elements of jealousy and anger also.
David Walsh’s book ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ served as the basis for much of the film, and was adapted ably by John Hodge, who manages to handle the numerous leaps in time and hefty exposition. Chris O’Dowd plays Walsh in the film, and he is a warm and enthusiastic presence, powered onwards by his struggle to clean up the sport he loves.
The film’s major drawback is its inability to bring anything new to the table. There have already been numerous books, and a few terrific documentaries (for example, ‘The Armstrong Lie’ and ‘Stop at Nothing’), outlining exactly what happened over the course of the scandal. Armstrong himself has been interviewed at length on the subject. The point of retelling such a story in dramatic form should be to reveal new material or insights, but nothing here really meets this criterion. It’s well made, and features some impressive recreations of various Tour stages, but it ultimately lacks anything to classify it as essential viewing.
‘The Program’ is an odd choice of film for Stephen Frears, best known for his gentler British films such as ‘The Queen’ and ‘Philomena’. One gets the feeling that was not a particularly big cycling fan, but more an inquisitive investigator of people. As such, the film gives us an interesting look at one of the most publicly disgraced figures of the last decade, but adds little more for those already familiar with the scandal.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 26.