There are a couple of moments in The Program, the new film about disgraced former cyclist Lance Armstrong, where the characters mention on screen that Hollywood is going to be making a story about his life. These scenes take place in the early 2000s and Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal are both name-dropped as potential contenders for the role of Armstrong. How would such a film have turned out? It would probably be a patriotic, feel-good crowd-pleasing drama. Armstrong may well have come across as an inspirational hero to millions, a man who triumphed over incredible adversity early in his career to beat the odds and achieve his dreams of becoming the world’s greatest cyclist. It would probably have been a major Oscar contender. It would also have in all likelihood been a much duller and less interesting film than The Program is.
The advantage of being made now of course, is that The Program doesn’t even need to be the slightest bit ambiguous as to the true nature of Armstrong’s sporting achievements. He was a cheat. He used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career and in each of his seven Tour-de-France victories. As such the role Armstrong plays in the story of his life is no longer that of the courageous champion, but instead more of a devious, calculating villain.
The Program does not simply wish to dilute him to the kind of stock cheating bully character one often finds in sports movies however, admirably wishing to explore the whole scope of his sporting career. At the same time, the film’s focus is squarely on Armstrong’s racing life and other factors related to it. Appropriately so given the subject matter, this is a rare biopic that doesn’t waste any time at all and heads straight for its goal. The screenplay from Trainspotting adapter John Hodge dispenses with any details of Armstrong’s life irrelevant to the story at hand, for instance he goes from meeting his future wife to their wedding in a single edit. Consequently this is one of the tightest, most focused and not to mention shortest (at a brisk 103 minutes), biopics I’ve seen in some time.
We first meet Lance Armstrong as a determined young competitive cyclist. He has potential but quickly seems to realise that the best cyclists, all on the same team, are receiving some kind of assistance from Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). Undeterred by the somewhat shady nature of the doctor, he seeks him out wanting to be on whatever his cyclists are, but is quickly dismissed by Ferrari for having the wrong body type.
Soon comes his terrifying cancer diagnosis, another aspect the film assumes the audience has familiarity with as it gets through the treatment scenes quite quickly and never tries to over-dramatically play-up the possible threat to his life a different take on this story might. In a rather perverse twist of fate, the chemotherapy he undergoes sufficiently alters his body that after his recovery he now can partake in Ferrari’s treatments.
Canet plays Ferrari as scientist who takes great pleasure in how his work can produce the best possible athletes, but while he remains a peripherally significant figure, soon it’s Armstrong and his team director Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) who are running the US team’s doping program with his supplies. The Program does a very efficient job at depicting what this involved without ever resorting to obvious exposition. We see various different methods they incorporate not just to take the drugs, but to dispose of the evidence and cheat on the mandatory tests. It really does appear that they had considered every possibility. Similarly the film displays how teamwork is required for an individual to win the Tour-de-France in a manner easy for those unfamiliar with it to comprehend.
The one man who isn’t impressed by Armstrong though is Sunday Times sports writer David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who immediately suspects that his drastically improved performances cannot simply be the result of better training. The film is based on Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, published after his allegations against Armstrong were confirmed, but it does not all play out from Walsh’s perspective, often alternating between longer scenes from Armstrong’s and his. The journalist’s problem is not that his accusations are unrealistic, just that he has no concrete piece of evidence and the more powerful Armstrong gets, the more risk he faces of being ostracised by his colleagues.
Again, our foreknowledge aids to make Walsh a very sympathetic figure, but O’Dowd still makes the most of his chance to shine in a rare dramatic role. Aware of this, the film also admirably avoids giving him a big triumphant “I told you so!” moment when he’s ultimately vindicated
Director Stephen Frears mirrors the lean, no-nonsense script in his editing of the sporting sequences. There was always a risk of the film getting somewhat repetitive due to Armstrong’s multiple wins of the Tour. Frears avoids this by skilfully editing them into a number of montages with key tactics only playing out the once. He also manages to incorporate a significant amount of archive footage and commentary of the actual races without this ever clashing with the movie’s own shots.
This is no doubt assisted by the fact that Foster manages to look uncannily like Armstrong throughout the film, allowing Frears to slip between a shot of him and one of the real race with ease. Foster’s portrayal is no mere impression though, he excels here in the best role he’s had in some time.
The Program seeks to show Armstrong as a three-dimensional character while simultaneously not trying to justify his actions or place the blame elsewhere. It’s ruthless on him at times but is no hit-piece. It is confident to include the undoubtedly good work Armstrong did with his charity for cancer research, and his dedication to it always comes across as genuine. At the same time, Foster is sure to never play him as some kind of tragic figure who gave in to temptation. He’s driven by a relatable desire to be the best, but he will achieve this by any means necessary, and even then will bully those who come up against him. As his ego grows, he can morph into full villain mode as he yells about how he will “shut the fucking whore mouth” of a woman who’s offered information against him by suing her, yet then will take extra time out of his busy schedule to visit children’s cancer wards. His dismissal of former teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) deftly demonstrates how his drive to win far outweighs any loyalty or compassion he might have for those who helped him get to the top.
The most damning scenes of Armstrong in fact tend to be the tense press conferences where he, as he did in reality, repeatedly denies that he’s ever taken drugs. Seeing these recreated after the fact, and indeed after we’ve seen him take drugs multiple times in the movie add another layer on contempt to Armstrong, here he is going in front of the world and defiantly lying through his teeth, while threatening those like Walsh who might expose him.
Floyd Landis was someone I was actuality unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film, and his angle offers an interesting contrast to Armstrong’s. He too wants to be the best but becomes increasingly concerned when he learns the extent to which his team is breaking the rules. I couldn’t help but think that there’s potential for a whole film told from either Landis’ or Walsh’s view with Armstrong as a more outside figure, but The Program does an excellent job of folding their sides into his main story.
If anything, the film could have perhaps included a bit more of both, but one shouldn’t complain with a film as streamlined as this. It’s only real missteps are a couple of unimaginative music cues and an extended cameo from Dustin Hoffman in the third act. Not that there’s anything wrong with his acting, just that having such a big star play this relatively minor role proves distracting.
The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is undoubtedly one of the more fascinating sports stories of recent years, and The Program does it justice by offering us a tightly paced re-telling with a fascinating portrait of the man in the center. It’s a film that plays less like the standard sports biopic this story might well have once ended up being, and more like an intriguing crime drama.