The Program

November 26, 2015
Ben Foster in 'The Program' (2015)
Ben Foster in 'The Program' (2015)

It’s strange that with so many excellent documentaries being made today, filmmakers still believe that every true story needs to be turned into fiction. This was the case with features such as The Walk and Freeheld, which reworked the subjects of acclaimed documentaries. Now Stephen Frears, who really should know better, has entered the fray with The Program, a bio pic about disgraced cyclist, Lance Armstrong, that tracks back over material handled by master documentarist, Alex Gibney, in The Armstrong Lie (2013).

If that documentary had never been made it might be a little easier to appreciate The Program, although the film would still have its problems. One issue is the sheer amount of information crammed into a modest 103 minutes. Gibney’s documentary runs for more than two hours, without having to spend time on establishing character, setting the scene, or anything else required of a conventional movie drama.

As a consequence, The Program skips hastily through vast swathes of Armstrong’s career, giving the story a breathless feeling. Frears includes a mass of newsreel material, making much of the action seem like a dramatic reconstruction in a documentary. There is simply not enough time spent fleshing out any of the characters, including Armstrong. The life-changing bout of testicular cancer at age 21, which galvanised the cyclist’s will to win at any cost, is glossed over at alarming speed. The ending, and the famous tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey is similarly rushed. Even the love interest gets the treatment, with Armstrong meeting and marrying his wife in seconds flat.

For Ben Foster, who plays the lead role, the challenge is to be a better actor than Armstrong himself. Throughout his seven Tour de France titles, his frequent denials of drug use, his charity work, and the misconceived comeback that led to his downfall, Armstrong put in a performance worthy of an Academy Award. He learned how to keep a straight face, to express indignation at the merest suggestion of cheating, and to be the All-American hero his fans required.

The real Armstrong was apparently one of those liars who have the capacity to believe their own lies. His work on behalf of cancer research allowed him to adopt the moral high ground in any encounter, and perhaps in his own mind. How could he be doing anything wrong when he was raising tens of millions for a good cause?

The Program is based on the book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, by Irish journalist, David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd). It shows the obstacles Walsh encountered when he began to question Armstrong’s success. It was as if he was blaspheming against a sporting deity, putting himself off-side with the sport’s administrators and his fellow journalists, who preferred the romance to the truth.

Although Frears allows us to see things Walsh was never able to see, such as the entire U.S. Postal team lying in a bus having blood extracted so it can be used to beat the doping tests, there are no new insights into Armstrong’s mind or personality. We see him from the outside, as a competitor so focussed on winning that no rules need apply. Foster does a lot of scowling and snarling, and even practises his lines in a mirror before fronting a press conference. He plays Armstrong as a repellant personality, devoid of the charisma that was an important part of the package.

Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), the doctor who supplied the dope to Armstrong and his team, is pretty much as he was in Gibney’s documentary, although less engaging. The one character that gets more traction in Frears’s film is Floyd Landis, who exposed the entire operation when he was busted for drugs and left to dangle by Armstrong and the others. Jesse Plemons is convincing as a taciturn but conflicted man whose religious upbringing is betrayed by his professional misdeeds.

There is a great story in Lance Armstrong, but to do justice to the subject and the man it would require a mini-series rather than a single movie. Frears throws out a multitude of promising leads but fails to follow up on any of them.

How different it might have been if Armstrong had never come out of his glorious retirement. Perhaps the most poignant moment in this film comes when Armstrong’s team-mates joke about who’ll play Lance in a mooted bio pic, with Matt Damon the favourite. After the comeback he would go from hero to villain and end up with Ben Foster.

The Program
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by John Hodge, after a book by David Walsh
Starring Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Dennis Ménochet, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman
UK/France, rated M, 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th November, 2015.