Thanks to a complimentary ticket from StudioCanal I went to see The Program ( the apt title explained here) at the Nova in Carlton. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film, about American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s rise to multiple winner of the Tour de France and his dramatic fall embroiled in a drugs scandal involving so many participants that for many people, the sport is sullied forever.
I can remember when the amazing success of Lance Armstrong dominated the media a decade ago. A cancer survivor, he returned to cycling to win the most rugged and difficult cycling event in the world – not once but seven times. Worshipped by adoring fans because of his courage and talent, he set up a successful charity for cancer patients and research, he had speaking engagements, wrote inspiring columns and a book – he became a sporting celebrity and motivator. One of the world’s greatest.
And then he was revealed as a cheat, not only winning because of performance enhancing drugs, but repeatedly lying and involving others in his web of deceit. The film shows how practised he became at lying.
His famous interview with Oprah admitted guilt, but not remorse. Instead, he justified his behaviour by saying other athletes used drugs!
Some people may avoid the film because there have been books and documentaries about Armstrong. However, I’d recommend seeing The Program, even if only to appreciate how amazing Ben Foster is as Lance Armstrong, and to understand the scope of what the cyclist managed to get away with and how he fooled authorities.
The biopic as it unfolds is gripping viewing on the big screen. I found the other characters based on real people fascinating too. The contribution of bit players in great historical moments often forgotten.
Foster captures the mannerisms and nuances of Armstrong, who I’d describe as a sociopath. There are moments when you feel sorry for him, but they are few. What drives him to punish his body in such a way? The single mindedness that drives his choices regardless of who he hurts is disconcerting, but amidst the ruthlessness he genuinely cares for cancer victims and raises millions of dollars for cancer research.
The opening scenes where the twists and turns of the long, mountainous road is traversed by a solo cyclist, a fabulous metaphor.
Lance showed determination and courage conquering his cancer and the difficult terrain of the Tour de France, but the narrative he wove to justify bullying, cheating, lying and manipulating, ultimately left him isolated. He pushed himself to the limits of endurance, yet his arrogance, desire, and determination to win were instrumental in his downfall.
To coin a cliche he was hoisted on his own petard!
Lance Armstrong is still alive as are most of the people mentioned in the movie so I can imagine the production’s legal team worked overtime.
However, the screenplay by John Hodge is adapted from “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” by David Walsh, the Sunday Times sportswriter played by Chris O’Dowd and most legal issues have probably been raised before and sorted.
The dogged determination of Walsh to prove his suspicions about Armstrong is one of the main threads of the movie. When Lance’s ability to lie and bully effectively isolates Walsh from the other journalists, the vision of him standing alone in a city square, dwarfed by Armstrong’s fancy hotel another powerful metaphor.
This is what film does so well – moves the story along, engages your emotions without words or explanations.
As the drug scandal unfolds, The Program concentrates on the fall from grace of Armstrong and the other cyclists in his U.S. Postal Service team. It only briefly touches on private family lives, these glimpses great additions with deft editing by Danny Cohen.
We don’t see what background shaped Lance and influenced his choices but we do see the emotional rollercoaster of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), and his transition from idealistic young cyclist from a traditional Mennonite community to winner of the Tour de France and then whistleblower and architect of Armstrong’s disgrace.
I wonder how much of his Christian values Floyd Landis absorbed because if he had not been caught by the testing doctors and then abandoned by Lance, would he have confessed?
Jesse Plemons does a wonderful job of showing a man struggling with guilt, with choices, with his conscience, but it is extremely disquieting how easily Floyd and Lance lied to journalists, race organisers and government officials before they were caught and cornered.
They may not be monsters but their monstrous actions destroyed reputations and credibility in a sporting event that many people relied on for their livelihood. And their legacy has left a cloud over subsequent sporting events.
Sadly, many people like me now see world record breakers, not first and foremost as great athletes, but as people clever enough to avoid performance enhancing drugs being detected in their system!
The narrative sticks close to the title, explaining the origin and execution of the doping ‘program’ designed and operated by the Italian physician and coach, Dr Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and adapted and organised by Armstrong for his team.
The sweeping camera shots of cinematographer Danny Cohen makes the cycling scenes live and when melded with actual footage of the races the cinema audience is ‘there’.
The scenes of injections, blood transfusions and of Lance’s cancer treatment so realistic I closed my eyes at times. The editing and camera close-ups used to good effect.
I’ve been through operations and chemotherapy and it’s mind boggling that after cancer treatment Armstrong willingly punished his body to the extent the doping regime demanded.
This film could be a great tool in classrooms to discuss ethics. The emotions and opinions generated by the hype around Lance Armstrong as opposed to the reality, interesting topics to explore. And how culpable are people who are complicit by remaining silent when race or match fixing is suspected or known?
Australia is a sports mad country and there is big money in sport. Where is the tipping point if money corrupts? How difficult is it to make the “right” choice?
There is an interesting and amusing scene where celebrity Lance endorses products he dislikes. The insincerity of celebrity advertising revealed.
For Lance the end justified the means when it came to making money and seeking adulation. Was he always a cheat? Maybe a film exploring what influences create a Lance Armstrong will be made!
The movie ends acknowledging the source of the material and with short bios of what happened to the main players.
The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team (USPS Team) and its participants’ doping activities. The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.
Statement From USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart Regarding The U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team Doping Conspiracy
The Program has had mixed reviews. Variety considers Director “Stephen Frears’ cautious study of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace doesn’t crack the cyclist’s implacable veneer.” Whereas The Empire and Time-Out give it four stars, which would be my inclination too.
The Program kept me engaged for the full 103 minutes. It gave my friend and I lots of fodder for an interesting discussion over coffee. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it and have a much deeper understanding of what is involved in doping in sport. And certainly know a lot more about cycling.
Drugs and corruption are recurring themes in Australian and world sport, a film like this is relevant even if about ‘history’ – go see it!