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The Program – Review
UKScreen Rating:

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In the late 1990s, a little-known American cyclist, Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster), charmed the pants of an unsuspecting, otherwise cynical cycling journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who became an unlikely champion for someone he thought would be a terrific prospect in flat racing, but less of a challenger in the mountains.

A hunger to win, at any cost, drove Armstrong to seek help from a controversial Italian trainer, Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), whose methods were at the very least questionable. But before his new training programme  (or as the Americans like to spell it, program), could take effect, he was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer.

His determination to succeed helped him beat the cancer and return to cycling, eventually to become the most successful Tour de France competitor of all time, winning no fewer than seven successive titles.

But as Armstrong went from a nobody, to a cancer patient to a winner in terrains where his body shape should not have been able to succeed, Walsh grew increasingly suspicious. Unable to secure interviews with Armstrong anymore, Walsh started challenging him at press conferences, where his suggestions of cheating were met with forceful denial after forceful denial.

Armstrong always won – on the track, at the microphone, everywhere. As the years went by, he built up a team of fellow cyclists and media manipulators who did whatever it took to help him win, again and again, until Walsh’s persistence eventually shattered the image of cycling’s golden boy.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Once again, many people will be asking themselves why they need to see a narrative feature when they’ve already seen the documentary of the same story, in this case, Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, that was released as recently as last year.

As with Robert Zemeckis’ recent The Walk, which repeated the story previously told in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, the director Stephen Frears has said the reason to see his film is for what was missing from the documentary. In Man on Wire, there was no footage of the eccentric Frenchman Philippe Petit walking between the World Trade Center twin towers, so Zemeckis recreated it,. In The Armstrong Lie, the cyclist clearly didn’t film himself cheating, so what Frears has available that Gibney didn’t are several scenes featuring the key cast, lounging around with tubes feeding one substance or another into their blood, with the casual indifference of a group of yummy-mummies treating themselves to a well-earned facial or pedicure.

But while Zemeckis was able to add an element of wonder to his film, in all its vertiginous 3D glory, watching a group of men doping, lacks the same visual impact.

More significantly, it takes away one of the elements of the story that made The Armstrong Lie as compelling as it was – doubt. In the same way that the cyclist was able to charm and trick all those he encountered in real-life for so long, so he did to viewers of the documentary, even though that film began with his confession of wrong-doing. The natural charm of sport’s greatest cheat made him an oddly sympathetic anti-hero in the story of his own self-destruction.

But being so upfront about what the cyclist and his team were doing, as Frears is, makes it much more difficult for viewers to root for him – or even warm to him a little.

His story was a tragic reversal of heroism; to all who fell under his spell – which was most people – he was a sportsman, struck down with testicular cancer, who regained his health and won a record seven Tour de France titles, setting up a globally respected cancer charity along the way. Perhaps people just didn’t want to believe that such an angel could have a dark side.

But Ben Foster’s portrayal of the man – while, at times, offering an uncannily accurate visual impersonation of Lance Armstrong, although with Ben Foster’s voice – presents him as a loathsome, arrogant, shameless cheat – which was almost certainly what he was, but doesn’t make for a compelling protagonist. Or perhaps Foster himself just isn’t as magnetic as Armstrong. In this film, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to like Armstrong in the first place.

Furthermore, in the documentary, Armstrong offered first denials, then defences, including the explanation – if not an acceptable excuse – that everyone was cheating, so he just did it better than everyone else; his justification was that he was indeed competing on a level playing field, just not the playing field that fans and sponsors thought they were watching.

But in this film, we see only the denials and no attempt even to explain why Armstrong was so determined to win at all costs – all sportsmen want to win, after all. There’s also little sense as to what it was that made him so magnetic that other sportsmen were willing to follow in his wake – both on the mountain roads and on the hotel beds or coach seats where the drugs were administered. Perhaps they did as they were told because it was genuinely as widespread as suggested in the documentary, but this film presents Armstrong and his team as the only cheats, rather than the best ones.

The performance at the heart of this film is really Chris O’Dowd’s David Walsh, the sports journalist whose book eventually exposed Armstrong and formed the basis for both this film and Gibney’s documentary, in which he also appeared, although less prominently. Viewers will identify with him when his initial faith in the cyclist is dashed, they’ll support his crusade and feel for him when the world of cycling closes ranks against him, but unless you’re a particular fan of cycling, the stakes aren’t really high enough for The Program to play as a journalistic expose story, along the lines of All the President’s Men (we even get a Deep Throat like “you don’t know me but you’ll want to hear what I have to say”) or The Insider. And viewers will expect to see a film about the most charismatic and successful sports cheat in history, not a little-known Irish journalist who refused to give up until the truth came out; telling the story from Walsh’s perspective, after all, was always going to replace the ambiguity of real-life drama with the certainty of a science experiment.

While The Armstrong Lie wasn’t one of Gibney’s most powerful documentaries, hearing things from the horses’ mouths – not least seeing the real Armstrong at full pelt – added weight to a story already familiar to most consumers of current affairs and even people who haven’t seen Gibney’s film are likely to know enough about the story that Frears will have little new to offer. Gibney also had the added advantage of getting there first.

Foster certainly looks the part, both physically and even facially, and Frears does his best to try to make an expose of cycling, whose outcome is already well understood, exciting, not least through some riveting race cinematography, but there’s a very real sense that Gibney took the wind out of his sails.

But a film industry and general audience that favours narrative films over documentaries might just be enough to prop up a film which, without The Armstrong Lie, could have been a contender, if not a winner.

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