For more than a decade, Lance Armstrong was a hero: a role model for his sporting achievements as the seven-time winner of the Tour de France, and an example of a brave battle won against cancer. He brought American attention to the Tour, and to cycling. When the illusion shattered, the whole world was aghast…save for David Walsh. A Sunday Times sports journalist, Walsh had suspected for years that the athlete took performance enhancing drugs, and had continuously sought to prove it.
The Program is based on Walsh’s book on the topic, The Seven Deadly Sins, and is a no holds barred condemnation of Armstrong’s character. With a stunning lead performance from Ben Foster as Armstrong, the film is entertaining, but awkwardly plotted – and perhaps too quick to narrow on Armstrong’s flaws, rather than examining the system which led him to his transgressions.
Beginning as Armstrong embarks on his first Tour, the film follows him through his cancer, seven victories, and comeback – until his infamous confession interview with Oprah Winfrey. From the very beginning, he is shown as easily corrupted. Quick to realise that his competitors are taking performance-enhancing drugs, he is eager to join their ranks, urging doctor Michele Ferrari (an unrecognisable, bespectacled Guillaume Canet) to put him on his ‘program’. At first sent away by Ferrari, he procures his first drugs himself, encouraging his team to follow suit. His team manager Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) later becomes the coordinator for the purchase and supply of the substances, coaching his athletes on how to cheat the elaborate tests imposed by the regulation agencies. The film simultaneously follows Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), at one time Armstrong’s teammate, whose story is spun into a moving subplot. Plemons shows him as determined to win, but racked by his religious conscience and passion for cycling, which seems to go beyond that of his colleagues.
In his role, Foster is as if possessed by Armstrong, his adoption of his public persona seamless. Yet in private, the film’s depiction of his personality is damning, Armstrong turning arrogant, menacing and an all-round bully – a sharp contrast to David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd). O’Dowd’s Irish accent may be variable, but he comes across as earnest about his passion for the sport and determination to dig up the truth.
Writer John Hodge takes an odd approach to the film’s storytelling. The plot is a mix of Walsh’s investigation with straightforward biopic fare, and this doesn’t work very well. Walsh is not in the film enough to suffice to a proper investigative plot line, while a biopic angle of Armstrong needed, at the very least, a dollop of sympathy. The film shows none for its subject matter.
An unpleasant individual Armstrong may be, but Frears regrettably neglects to assess the system that produced him – an angle which would have been interesting to investigate. What would have it meant for his career had he refused the drugs? Without results, he probably would have fallen into anonymity, for better or worse. The Program implies that everyone was complicit, from the media to testing agencies, and as such, collectively ruined the careers of those who remained honest. Yet the film is rather eager to pin the blame on an individual, failing to give Armstrong any leeway for context in which he was forced to navigate. Ultimately, The Program is well acted, but lacks the compelling structure and nuance that would have made it a great biopic.
The Program is now out in UK cinemas.