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The Program review : Armstrong's fall from grace

17 Sep 2015

A Cyclist take on the blockbuster rendition of David Walsh’s pursuit of the Texan, Lance Armstrong, who didn’t win seven Tours.

Cyclist Rating: 

If there’s one tale to be told of the modern age of cycling, it’s the tale of Lance Armstrong’s meteoric rise and catastrophic fall. It’s been told well with a vast array of excellent books as well as compelling documentaries such as The Armstrong Lie. This, however, is the first dramatisation of the story, and we expect there will be more to come.

The Program was billed as a take on David Walsh’s bestselling book on his pursuit of Armstrong, Seven Deadly Sins. In truth, it draws inspiration from the book, but is a more clear-cut narrative of Armstrong’s cycling career peppered with the crucial role Walsh played in his fall. The screenplay has been penned by Trainspotting writer John Hodge, the cinematography managed by The King’s Speech’s Danny Cohen and the entire project helmed by Stephen Frears, director of The Queen and High Fidelity. Early indications, then, were that this could well have the makings of a classic. Films on sport have long since proven to be problematic prospects though, so we were eager to see how The Program would sit with an audience of enthusiasts.

Devil in the detail

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program (2015)

From the very first shots of The Program, keen cyclists will be encouraged to see a Grand Tour Alpine stage painstakingly reconstructed. Condor bikes provided replica bikes to match Armstrong’s Trek - the Pearl Izumi US Postal kit and Giro helmet are authentic, and star Ben Foster even looks a doppelganger for Armstrong. In fact, a strangely impressive job has been done when it comes to finding actors that looked identical to their intended roles. I began to suspect that Johan Bruyneel might have actually been hard up enough to play himself.

The story follows Armstrong with incredible loyalty to the official account of the unfolding of his career and subsequent doping scandal, while the depiction of cycling at the world’s highest level faltered only slightly. Flèche Wallonne, for instance, was falsely depicted as a cobbled classic, and the peloton never looked to be descending with the angles and form that we would expect from riders topping 100kmh. Much of the cycling looks a little more Sunday club run than Grand Tour epic, but will probably be indistinguishable to all but the most obsessive fans of the sport. The film did employ a few UK domestic pros to drop a fledgling Armstrong on the cobbles in his early years, and very keen eyed viewers will probably recognise Kristian House and Yanto Barker amid the peloton. It must also be said that Ben Foster did do an excellent job of adopting the cyclist shape, and climbed with a form that looked capable of taking down most domestic pros (we won’t go into the scandal of Foster actually taking performance enhancing drugs to assist his role, but you should google it).

Perhaps there’s no surprise that with David Millar working as a cycling consultant to the project there was thankfully no 1990s steel frames equipped with Di2 or even an anachronous rim or spoke to be found throughout the entire picture. So for the devout technophile, commendations will be flowing for the film’s accuracy to the sport. But, alas, it’s not about the bike.

A body of evidence

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program (2015)

The Program is certainly dramatic, and offers a sharp insight into the atmosphere of pro cycling in the era as well as the internal world of Armstrong. It does, however, suffer from its unfaltering loyalty to the Armstrong tale. So much so that at times it almost feels as though the rush to incorporate every element leaves the viewer slightly lost as to what is actually going on. Betsy Andreu’s witnesses Armstrong’s 1996 hospital doping confession one minute and Simeoni is being lassoed back from the breakaway at the 2004 Tour de France the next. Perhaps for the cycling fraternity well versed in each stage of the story, we might have preferred a little more of a depiction of the glamour of cycling in the Armstrong era or perhaps more of the personal story of Armstrong or Walsh. Chris O’Dowd’s Walsh, oddly, seems to entertain surprisingly little air time, with only cursory nods to his struggles through a libel trial or his alienation from the cycling media as a result of his work.

Many will be happy to see, though, that despite Armstrong being depicted as selfish, arrogant and manipulative, this is no story of heroes and villains. Ben Foster, without a doubt the standout role, reflects the human soul beneath Armstrong’s lust for success and glimpses at his inner turmoil throughout. Admirable attention is drawn to Armstrong’s sincere sympathy for cancer sufferers. Neither does the film lead us to believe that Armstrong was acting in isolation in a field of otherwise clean riders.

Guillaume Canet as Michelle Ferrari in The Program (2015)

There’s a little bit of comedy, too. Whether intentional or not, Michele Ferrari’s shady lookalike manages a slightly hilarious depiction of a mad professor dead-set on producing abominable world-beating dopers. Whether making biblical proclamations of mystic doping wings that will fly Armstrong to future victory or outraging the medical community with suggestions of athletic EPO use, Ferrari seems brilliant while also laughably over the top. A turbo session where Ferrari injects EPO into Armstrong’s blood stream and watches him suddenly whirr up to 120rpm did manage to stir a laugh, and is probably the only point where the film bordered on being totally ridiculous. Dustin Hoffman’s arrival on screen as insurance agent Bob Hamman (eager to reclaim some of SCA’s guarantee for over $10 million of Armstrong prize money) was also a little jarring, but generally enjoyable.

So, for our part The Program is well worth a watch, even if falling a little short of what we might have hoped from it. For newcomers to the Armstrong scandal it’s an informative rush-through, and for devout cyclists it’s an encouragingly accurate depiction of cycling and doping in the era of Armstrong. All things considered, we give it three and a half stars for what it deserves as a film, and an extra half a star for being about cycling.

Director: Stephen Frears

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Dustin Hoffman

Release Date: 16th October

Run time: 1 hour 43 minutes

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