It’s a story we all know, and a story we all hate. Despite this, I think many like myself take pleasure in its retelling, not necessarily to go over the finer details, but in an attempt to unmask the tale’s main protagonist, and to understand what on earth was going through Lance Armstrong’s mind. The most successful cyclist of all time, one of the most revered names in sport, a downfall of such enormity that it rocked an entire planet.
The Program begins with a young cyclist, Armstrong, with a desire to win ingrained in his person. Despite this, there are some people he cannot beat and some races his simply cannot win; it’s pointed out to him that his body is suited to a particular type of racing, shorter sprints or time trials rather than larger and longer challenges such as an entire Tour. Science thou art a harsh mistress. However, rumours float around that some cyclists are using a substance called EPO that, by enhancing the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, allows athletes to push faster and further than their bodies would usually allow, enabling sprint minnows to becomes Tour giants. The man at the forefront of this treatment is Michele Ferrari, a doctor for one of the other cycling teams. Armstrong approaches Ferrari and demands to be put on “whatever program your guys are on”, saying he’ll do anything it takes to win. Suddenly the science that had previously proved one obstacle too many, is now smashing down barriers at an alarming rate.
So this is the story that most people know, but The Program shines light onto another story running concurrently to Armstrong’s, that of Irish journalist David Walsh. Walsh followed Armstrong from his humble beginnings as a fairly average pro, right through his golden years, and was one of the few people who could glimpse the monster behind the mask. The film positions Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd (IT Crowd, Bridesmaids) and Armstrong, played by Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma, X:Men: The Last Stand) as nemeses over the course of several years and meetings. Walsh questions how on earth a man who shouldn’t physically be able to win a mountain stage in any race, can develop so quickly into a Tour de France winning machine, without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. What we see of Armstrong is a man so caught up in his own lies, that he will use any tactics to suppress the truth, making threats and taking legal action against any who dare to make allegations against him. Foster does a brilliant job of showcasing these dictatorial characteristics as he demands his team mates to also get on the program of performance enhancers, evade the authorities at all costs and spread the gospel of Lance. It was revealed after filming wrapped that Foster secretly took EPO over the course of production to get a better idea of the man he was playing (supervised by a doctor).
Whilst O’Dowd and Foster deliver strong performances, and lead us through the story aptly, at times it feels like the dramatic moments fail to achieve any kind of crescendo. Yes we know what happened (thank you Oprah), but I feel much more power could have been harnessed had there been a greater focus on Armstrong’s relationships with those around him. We see how he commands loyalty of those on his team, but characters such as eventual whistle-blower Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) feel too underdeveloped for the story to pivot on. Landis and others played a major role in Armstrong’s success via doping, and also his eventual downfall, so it would have been nice to see more friction points with people other than Walsh, so as to better present the two sides of our protagonist; Armstrong vs His Own Team, and Armstrong vs The Outside World.
There are some scenes that focus on Armstrong as a cancer survivor, but it’s unclear what these are trying to achieve; perhaps these are to showcase his, and by extension everyone’s mortality, or maybe to somehow justify why he felt such a desperate need to win. This part of the story could be a film on it’s own, but the minutes dedicated to it here don’t add much to the overall composition.
The Program provides a great overview of this enormous scandal, but it is that enormity that makes it so difficult to capture on film. The cast do a great job of portraying key focal points throughout Armstrong’s career, the science behind doping, and his relationship with the press, but this feels very much like a ‘cycling film’, whereas Lance Armstrong was much more than just a cyclist. He was a machine, his impact and actions extended far beyond his sport. I really enjoyed the film, it’s fascinating, but I feel director Stephen Frears just hasn’t quite managed to capture the gravity of what happened.
Dir: Stephen Frears
Scr: John Hodge (screenplay), David Walsh (book)
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace
Prd: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon
DOP: Danny Cohen
Country: UK, France
Run time: 103 mins
The Program is out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Monday 15th February.