Getting with The Program

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

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A Different Angle on a Legend

LEGEND 
1. a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.
synonyms: myth, saga, epic, tale, story, folktale, folk story, fairy tale, fable, mythos, folklore, lore, mythology, fantasy, oral history, folk tradition; urban myth
2. an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.
synonyms: celebrity, star, superstar, icon, phenomenon, luminary, leading light, giant; Mor

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My older sister came to stay from interstate this week and I took the opportunity to use complimentary tickets for Studiocanal’s latest promotion Legend “the notorious true story of the Kray twins“. The film focuses on the notoriety of identical twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and their criminal empire in the East End of London during the 1960s.

To be honest, I doubt if I would have gone to see this film without the free tickets because I grew up in an era with the Krays forever in the news – and it was all bad as these headlines from UK newspapers show:

I didn’t want to see a film glorifying violence or justifying the appalling behaviour of these would be celebrities. Thankfully, Legend does not do either of these things. There are violent scenes and offensive language, but the movie concentrates on the love affair between Reggie Kray and Frances Shea and a very short time in the life of the Krays London-based criminal empire and gangster status. Frances is the narrator and we know what she wants from the relationship early in the film:

Frances Shea: You could go straight…
Reggie Kray: Life isn’t always what we want it to be.

While there is an attempt to show the human and vulnerable side to Reggie, the ultimate reality and tragic consequences dispels any sympathy you may feel for the main character. Legend is definitely not Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey!

The storyline is almost palatable when centered around the brief courtship and marriage of Reggie and Frances with the criminal activities as subplots. However, trying to make Ronnie and Reggie behave in a loving way towards anyone, even each other, an impossible task if you also depict the documented behaviour of the Krays and the other psychopaths and morons who were their associates. The episodic violence and scattering of references to celebrities, politicians and other gangsters of the time leaves unresolved and confusing subplots, but also destroys any sympathy for the people in their social circle.

However, the acting of Emily Browning as a ‘fragile’ Frances Shea and Tom Hardy as both Kray brothers lifts the film from mediocre to memorable. There are also some solid performances from recognisable British character actors showing good casting from writer/director Brian Helgeland. Christopher Eccleston plays a suitably frustrated Detective Nipper Read who eventually gets his ‘man’ and Tara Fitzgerald is a fearless and angry Mrs. Shea devastated at her daughter’s infatuation with Reggie.

Legend reveals both brothers as paranoid and violent. Their delusions of invincibility divorced from reality, although only Ronnie diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. This quote early in the movie sums him up:

Dr. Humphries: Your brother Ron is violent and psychopathic, and I suspect he’s paranoid schizophrenic… to put it simply he’s off his fucking rocker!
[thrusts a bottle of pills to Reggie]
Dr. Humphries: Make sure he takes these…, or they’ll be serious trouble. 

The doctor’s comment an understatement! Check out Monty Python’s ‘Pirhana Bros’ sketch lampooning the Krays. This pretty well sums up what people of my generation familiar with the real life ‘legend’, thought of creeps like the uneducated Krays who were not bright or smart, but epitomised the adage ‘brawn over brains’.

Perhaps the one lesson to take away from Legend is that there was a time in British justice when murderers were gaoled for life – Ronnie Kray (62) died in prison and Reggie (67), sentenced to 30 years, served 33 because of his prison behaviour and released on compassionate grounds, died 6 weeks later from cancer. The Krays had an older brother Charlie (73) not mentioned in the film. He also died in prison a few months before Reggie.

The film has had mixed reviews since its release and I can understand why. The acting is superb and I loved the soundtrack of mainly 60s music.  The set design offers the authenticity we’ve come to expect from British period productions. Movie trivia reveals:

“The Blind Beggar pub featured in the movie is The Royal Oak on Columbia Road in London. The pub has featured in many British TV programmes. It was the same pub used in ’90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart and was also the scene of Victor Meldrew’s failed reunion with friends in the last episode of One Foot In The Grave.”

However, in depicting the truth about the Krays, even a condensed version of their vicious amoral life, there is not much to enjoy. You leave the cinema with a sense of relief it’s over.

We don’t learn enough about the police officers involved or see how the Krays are eventually charged and sentenced to understand what real impact they had on London. Reggie’s dramatic about turn in his treatment of Frances so sudden and out of character it strips away all pretence that the movie is a love story and makes you realise that storyline arc not developed well at all.

Yet, for all the criticisms, I think the viewing public, accepts the film on face value, acknowledging Tom Hardy’s amazing triumph acting identical twins in such a way that audiences are convinced it is two separate people. And, as mentioned before, Emily Browning is stunning as the vulnerable and fragile Frances even though we could have done with more of her backstory. The glimpses of humour mainly provided by ‘mad’ Ron are not overdone and are believable for that character.

“In the UK, Legend (2015) became the highest grossing 18-rated British film of all time, surpassing Trainspotting (1996)….”

Despite the fact:

“Critic Benjamin Lee of The Guardian wrote a negative review of the film, giving it only two stars: a poster for British distributor Studio Canal displayed these, but placed them between the twins’ heads, so that at first glance The Guardian appeared to be one of many outlets that had run four- and five-star reviews (until Lee himself pointed this out on Twitter).”

Fortunately, the violence is not as graphic as it could have been and the film does not glamorise gangsters or criminal activity – you leave the cinema glad the Krays are no longer around. There are many unexplored threads, especially in relation to Ronnie’s mental illness and treatment juxtaposed with the depression (?) Frances obviously suffered and the pills she popped.

There is also a hint that Reggie is psychopathic too:

Ronald Kray: [on his twin stabbing Jack] Why did you kill him?
Reggie Kray: [walks up, so he is pressing his forehead against his twin] Because I CAN’T KILL YOU!

Mind you by the end of the film I think most people in the audience empathised with those sentiments! Perhaps even extended hopes of retribution, vengeance and justice towards both Krays and everyone in their circle of friends who took part in the attempt to build a ‘gangster kingdom’ in 1950s/60s Britain!

Please let me know what you think of the film if you see it.

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Selma – A Memorable Story about an Inspirational Man and Courageous People

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Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

There were plenty of misguided men in power in the USA when Dr Martin Luther King Junior devoted his life to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. America was fighting a war in Vietnam supposedly to free the Vietnamese from tyranny yet denied their own citizenry basic rights because of the colour of their skin!

Not surprising that my generation, who observed the nightly television news and read the newspaper headlines believed they’d never see an African-American as President of the United States.  I’m sure many, like me, wept with joy at President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009. 

Tonight, I attended a preview of Selma courtesy of Taylored Film and StudioCanal and highly recommend this moving account, of 1965, when Dr Martin Luther King Junior became inextricably linked with others in  Selma, Alabama to fight for all African-Americans to have the right to vote.

David Oyelowo is magnificent as Martin Luther King Jnr, as are some of the others in the cast – yet not one received a nomination for awards, which is disappointing. My daughter, Mary Jane who accompanied me to the preview said Selma has more impact than  Twelve Years A Slave because audiences can’t dismiss the events as being in the distant past.

Selma is about an era recognisably recent. It is not Klu Klux Klansmen being violent and nasty, but ordinary American citizens choosing to discriminate, attack and murder their fellow Americans because those in power allow them to do so.

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There is plenty of archival footage of  MLK and David Oyelowo captures him so well that you have no trouble believing that Dr King is on the screen. His spirituality never a question and the film handles his deep religious convictions and those of others around him very well without making it the focus.

The opening scenes catapult you straight into the story and action. You are shocked by what was a reality for African-Americans so be prepared for your blood pressure to rise and tears to flow. For those who lived through the era, it is a reminder of how ordinary people began to use massive street protests to force governments to change policies – people power.

Archival footage is used effectively in Selma to lend authenticity to the dramatisation of true events. And it is a drama, not a documentary. The filmmakers have done an excellent job telling an amazing story in a couple of hours of screen time. There have been debates about accuracy regarding some of the players during that tumultuous time, but not the essence of King’s leadership and achievements and the courage of the people of Alabama.

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There is in-your-face violence, its accuracy confronting but necessary.  The shooting of the protest scenes, the use of close-ups and slow motion create powerful and memorable images. Other visuals accompanied by music and the effective use of silence enhance the action scenes. Selma’s cinematography is superb.

The divisions within the movement – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Malcolm X and King’s passive, but provocative, non-violent group of clerics are shown, so too, the larger than life personalities of racists like Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark, a man who provoked this response from writer James Baldwin:

I suggest that what has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there … One has to assume that he is a man like me, but he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with a gun, and to use a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts … Their moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called color.

As I sat in the cinema tonight I wondered how many in the audience know of Australia’s civil rights struggle and how we treated, and still treat Aboriginal Australians. I was a student at ANU during the campaign for indigenous land rights and witnessed police brutality when they tried to destroy the tent embassy. It was terrifying when the police weighed in with batons and fists.

I hope the cinemas are filled when Selma is released this week and people absorb the lessons of an amazing story and an even more amazing man. I hope too, they ponder what is happening here in Australia right now – the terrible gap in health and educational outcomes for Aboriginal Australians in comparison to other Australians. I hope they are motivated to speak up and to work for change.

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I’m updating this review to provide links to my review of the documentary and talk I attended on the writer James Baldwin – I Am Not Your Negro – another must-see film.