Saturday 13 February 2021

From the archive: "The Program"

The numerous artefacts spawned by l’affaire Lance Armstrong – which include Alex Gibney’s typically thorough 2013 doc The Armstrong Lie, a Storyville overview (2014’s Stop at Nothing) and a prime-time Oprah special – have all been powered by a quest for understanding. How could Armstrong have deceived cycling’s administrators and fans so? How could he have got away with it for so long? Most crucial of all, perhaps: why? Everybody wants answers, but the only man who can really provide them is Armstrong himself – and, as his tight-lipped Oprah performance demonstrated, he ain’t saying much.

Stephen Frears’ dramatised account The Program, like many of its predecessors, claims to have the inside line: it’s based on Seven Deadly Sins, the crusading Sunday Times journo David Walsh’s account of his rocky professional relationship with Armstrong, proceeding from the latter’s first appearance on the European circuit back when he was a punk kid from Texas with nothing much to show for his endeavours on the domestic cycling front.

How he went from zero to hero and back again requires, in this multiplex-bound retelling, heightened levels of EPO-exposition and actors doing impersonations of real-life figures, the effectiveness of which will depend on how closely you know their inspiration. Denis Menochet makes a rather heavy-set Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong’s former rival-turned-coach; Guillaume Canet overdoes the flamboyance as “Pope of Dope” Michele Ferrari, presented as akin to every mad doctor the movies have ever known. (If you think that’s out there, wait until you see the swarthy male model-type drafted in to play Alberto Contador.)

Frears and screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting) present Armstrong himself as a physically hollowed-out Machiavelli, forever sniggering at the weakness of others. Ben Foster brings his usual intelligence and tenacity, and a remarkable physical likeness, to the part: watching this Lance rehearse his lies in a bathroom mirror, you really do have to tell yourself you’re not, in fact, watching the real thing. It’s a performance with clear demarcations: on one side of the looking glass, the square-jawed public persona, rallying the world to overcome cancer, on the other, the arrogant alpha using his charity work to offset the wider deception.

This latter strand – describing a tactic deployed by several British public figures – is where The Program breaks furthest away from the pack. Elsewhere, it shows signs of behind-the-scenes disorganisation. A marked contrast is established between honed loner Armstrong and schlubby family man Walsh (Chris O’Dowd, perfectly decent), only for the journo to get lost in the edit; whistleblowers Frankie and Betsy Andreu (Ed Hogg and Elaine Cassidy) – focal points of the Gibney film – themselves fall by the wayside, Frears instead following the wheel of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), Armstrong’s Mennonite teammate, as he negotiated his own path through the pile-up.

Pitching squarely for the mainstream, Frears skimps on the detail in favour of speed and movement. A lot of information is compressed into poppy montages: you can all but hear Frears chuckling as he layers The Fall’s “Mr. Pharmacist” over shots of Ferrari’s handiwork. The race sequences, however, look somewhat underpopulated: perhaps even a $100m movie would struggle to do justice to the spectacle of Le Tour, but the recourse to actual race footage here looks a tad desperate, in a way the incorporation of news footage in Frears’ The Queen, say, never did.

Frears understands this story comes down to our need to believe – not least that someone could overcome cancer to repeatedly win one of the most demanding events on the planet – and you sense him using his considerable experience to pull unspooling material into something that is, like Armstrong on a mountain stage, never less than watchable. Equally, though, The Program feels – and I’m not sure this is so healthy – like the Armstrong story on steroids: pacier than Gibney’s analysis, yes, but oddly misshapen – a film that doesn’t examine the public’s credulity, but proves more than a little dependent upon it.

(MovieMail, September 2015)

The Program screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.55am.

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