Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Denis Menochet, Lee Pace and Jesse Plemons
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Date: October 16th
“I have a competition in me”, understated Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, an explosive rumination on the madness contained within striving for success. Being at the absolute height of your craft demands a darker side to you, obsession breeds nastiness. In his recent documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Alex Gibney touched on the less talked about side of the Apple visionary, revealing his uglier side, the ruthless visionary and bully. Before that, Gibney tackled shamed cyclist Lance Armstrong, another man with an unstoppable urge to succeed whose Tour de France wins were paved in rival and foe’s bodies. Armstrong is universally shamed while Jobs is still deified, yet both thrived in a culture of bullying.
They’re both now getting the biopic treatment with the Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) directed and John Hodge (Trainspotting, Trance) written The Program out first. It’s a blundering TV-movie stab that almost veers into hagiography territory. The ‘most sophisticated doping programme ever’ ran by Armstrong and the Postal Service was always ripe for adaptation. The intricacies of the scheme are like a le Carré novel; filled with dead-drops, burner phones and blood bags full of fresh oxygen scootered around by a mysterious man on a moped. The obsessive pursuit by Paul Kimmage and David Walsh — whose book, Seven Deadly Sins, is adapted — of Armstrong that resulted in their ostracisation from their jobs was on a level of Woodword and Bernstein. There’s so much to consider that multiple films and angles could be taken. Yet Frears opts for a breezy this-is-how-it-started and this-is-how-it-ended approach that races through Armstrong’s rise and fall like a downhill on the Alps stage.
It makes for a mess that views more like a checklist of important moments than anything coherently fluid with a tone that veers worryingly into lightheartedness. Montages to ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ and the Lemonheads’ ‘Mrs Robinson’ zip by Armstrong’s Tour de France wins. Michele Ferrari (a game Guillaume Canet), the doctor serving a lifetime sporting ban who orchestrated Armstrong’s doping scheme, is imagined a moustache-twirling Bond villain who reveals his masterplan in actual soliquay. Frears doesn’t paint Armstrong as all that bad, the omertà he drove is mentioned but it’s never shown. His particularly nasty misogynistic streak is watered down, in particular, his attacks on Betsie Andreu and Emma O’Reilly — in reality, what he said was under oath at a deposition, here it’s a bro-ish conversation with agent Bill Stapleton.
Like Jobs, Lance succeeded because people wanted to believe in him. After the disaster of Festina, his Tour of Redemption win, coupled with his cancer recovery narrative, was like a cleansing of cycling. And while the wins depended on doping, the facade all relied on Lance’s charisma. He was a likeable, charitable guy, whose orbit people flocked to be within. Ben Foster is a fine actor but one who could never be described as overly charming. Although he embodies Armstrong’s reckless determination — down to shooting EPO for real –he’s makes Lance feel like a weird outsider rather than talisman and lacks the magnetism of say a Bradley Cooper — who has also hummed and hawed with the role for a while. O’Dowd gets second billing as David Walsh but is oft seen outside of pedestrian scenes with his editor trying to convince him that something is amiss about Armstrong’s miraculous recovery. Jesse Plemons is a highlight as Floyd Landis, a Mennonite teammate of Armstrong who admitted to doping in 2010, thus implicating all of the US Postal team. His screen time is short but he carries Landis’ guilt, that was as equally fuelled by jealously, extremely well.
Tyler Hamilton, a teammate of Lance Armstrong who rode with him for his first three Tour de France wins, wrote in his book The Secret Race of a time when he broke his collarbone in the first stage of a Tour. Rather than understandably bow out, he rode on grinding his teeth to offset the pain. When he finished, he’s bore all the way down to the root. It takes a mania present to get on a bike and subject yourself to that gruelling three week torture. That’s never really vocalised here, what it was that drew Armstrong to do what he did outside of the weak ‘everyone else was doing it’ argument. He’s one of the most three-dimensional complex villains of our time, an apex predator who butchered all around him; Foster and Frears give us cardboard, good and evil as black and white.
Frears and Hodge never seem to know what perspective they want to follow and its hurts The Program visually too. Archival footage is used, reenactments at other times, Foster is superimposed into podium finishes and mostly egregiously, that Oprah interview. It continuously pulls you out of a movie that struggles to keep you at its peak. There are many books and accounts of what is one of the greatest scandals of our time and there will invariably be more movies made out of those books. Wait for them.