By now just about everybody is aware that Lance Armstrong’s historic seven wins in the iconic and gruelling Tour De France were tainted by drugs and the use of elaborate masking agents; especially after his frank and revealing confession in an extended interview with Oprah Winfrey. And anyone who saw Alex Gibney’s detailed and well researched 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie will be familiar with the story and many of the facts and revelations that are raised in The Program, a dramatisation of Armstrong’s rise and dramatic fall from grace.
The Program is based on the book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit Of Lance Armstrong, written by Irish journalist David Walsh, who spent years trying to find proof of Armstrong’s cheating and duplicity. In many ways, The Program is a tale of two obsessions – Armstrong’s obsession with winning the prestigious Tour De France by any means, and Walsh’s obsession with exposing him as a drug cheat.
Armstrong enlisted the help of sports medicine doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) to develop a rigorous program to help him compete in a sport rife with drugs and performance enhancement techniques and give him an edge over the other riders. After a cancer scare, Armstrong and Ferrari tested new drugs and experimented with blood doping techniques, using the injections of oxygenated blood into the system to enhance performance but also to disguise the drugs. Under Ferrari’s direction, Armstrong’s team, which was sponsored by the US Postal Service, embarked on the most efficient and systematic program of doping in the history of the sport.
And he got away with it. What triggered his downfall was his decision to enter the Tour De France after several years of retirement. Was it hubris that brought him back to the sport that cemented his reputation? Former teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons, from Black Mass) eventually blew the whistle on the whole program. Although he had participated in the doping during his time on Armstrong’s team, Landis had been troubled by the use of drugs. When Armstrong dropped him from his team during his comeback to the event , Landis blew the whistle.
The screenplay has been written by John Hodges, best known for writing Trainspotting, but the film only scratches the surface and fails to really get under Armstrong’s skin. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen) handles the material in rather prosaic fashion and he fails to deliver any real insights or fascinating new information. There is something a little superficial about it all, a feeling that a lot has been glossed over. Gibney’s superior documentary went into more detail about how Armstrong threatened people with lawsuits and used his connections with his cancer charity to try and deflect accusations, while protesting his innocence as “the most tested athlete on the planet.”
Ben Foster (from Kill Your Darlings) steps into the role of Armstrong here and he bears a strong physical resemblance to the disgraced athlete. He captures his arrogance and his drive, but he also hints at a sense of vulnerability in an attempt to make him appear more human.
Essentially playing a straight role here comic Chris O’Dowd (from The Sapphires) plays Walsh, the crusading journalist who was shunned by colleagues because of his suspicions about Armstrong, and he tempers his doggedness with some flashes of Irish humour. His expose of Armstrong’s drug cheating eventually led to a nasty and protracted lawsuit.
Frears effectively recreates some exciting bike racing action here, and cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech) brings an urgency to these scenes.
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Pace, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons
Release Date: 26 November 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television