While this film is based on Sunday Times journalist Steve Walsh’s non-fiction hit ‘Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’, this film doesn’t investigate the history of Steve Walsh’s (Chris O’Dowd) family life aside from a dinner interrupted by a mysterious phone-call. Rather director Stephen Frears opens to parallels between everyone and Armstrong, his pursuit of immortality over mere morality, not afraid of destroying others. Chronicling the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, Frears has created an interesting, thrilling film where one of the most celebrated cyclists in the world started off as a nobody, researches doping, gets and recovers from testicular cancer, before taking doping to an industrial level on his way to win several Tour-De-France and other titles. When an investigation in 2012 revealed he was doping (taking performance-enhancing drugs), the biggest icon in world sport became the biggest victim of his own hubris, but his actions destroyed so many others as well.
Chris O’Dowd is a supporting player, hugely likeable, portraying Walsh as a quick-witted, intense Irishman, but all in all a normal bloke. Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), another American cyclist who joins Armstrong’s team, guilt-ridden former Mennonite doper, who’s moral conciousness pokes at Armstrong’s side, has an interesting perspective with Plemon’s sympathetic performance, but is also a supporting player. Ben Foster becomes Lance Armstrong, arrogant, psychopathic, but hypnotic leader. He will never be a supporting player.
The film doesn’t want to explore Armstrong’s married life or his children. The film wants Armstrong to be Machiavelli, using his fame and personality to control his team and other riders, manipulate cycling administration organisations, even turn other journalists against Walsh, and to achieve greatness in cycling. It is hard to not be enthralled by Foster’s chameleon performance, that the film may not be the definitive biopic, this is the closest we can get to getting into Armstrong. The common motif that the film is always drawn back to is the image of him being a lonely rider, cycling around Texas or on the mountain stages. For him that means victory, singularity, Godhood. While we may be sympathetic as he fears and drives himself away from weakness, especially the close-call with cancer, it rather makes him re-purposes his corruption and making it more complex, more grander. Foster brings Armstrong’s arrogance a special intensity, as he can’t help smiling in the face of absolute seriousness, and struggling to suppress his emotions when things do not go his way. Back on the circuit, he starts a charity, Livestrong, and while it might have helped, it was more useful as a ‘shield’, to protect himself from his misdeeds. The film works wonderfully as a commentary on fame and power, but as with winners and losers, the film doesn’t have the best grasp on the inner-lives and emotional undercurrents for much of the screen time.
Edited in a way that it jumps from film to archive and back, mixing in interviews and cuttings from newspapers, the film amplifies but at times it seems to lose track of the cycling or what type of sportsmen Armstrong, Landis et al are like. It’s almost perfunctory, Eurosport style highlight reels, and we can’t really feel for any of the cycling, whether it was legitimate or ‘enhanced’. Maybe that is the point, but then coupled with the lack of look into the protagonist’s personal lives, we just don’t feel as emotionally engaged as we could have been, particularly the paired down final act that seems to make Armstrong as reactive to the film as everyone else is to him. As thrill ride however, The Program does move fast and keep your attention, and find entertainment out of seeing the sheer audacity of Armstrong’s schemes, leaving us to wonder the bigger crime was that we let him get away with it as long as he did.
The Program in The Program is a cocktail as well as instructions as to how to dope, when to dope and where to dope, which the U.S. Postal Service Team participates in. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), can’t believe he can’t improve these athletics, to make them gods with science. This is weirdly played off as comedic, as they discuss movie adaptations on Armstrong’s life as they take their cocktails, to Armstrong casually lying next to Landis on separate single beds, with blood bags hanging on each side of them from coat-hangers. There is no significant female parts, but in this hyper-masculine world, it would only serve to further show how ridiculous these men are, and in part women are seen with suspicion. Cycling, for a film about cycling, seems to be less about actually riding a bike but rather maintaining your position, that everyone was doing was doing it, and why shouldn’t I?
The Program is good weekend entertainment, with a captivating performances led by Ben Foster, that while at times the story felt hollow with a third rushed act, it is certainly has good entertainment value.
RATING: THREE AND A HALF STARS.