Lance Armstrong was an American Cyclist. Lance Armstrong survived testicular cancer. Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs to win 7 Tour De France titles. Lance Armstrong got caught and said sorry. These are the basics of the Armstrong story ones we all accept as fact, Stephen Frears latest movie The Program lays them out as such but offers no more insight on the situation than I have in those opening few sentences.
When Armstrong was caught doping back in 2012 the world was in shock, Armstrong had been an inspiration for millions the world over and thousands refused to believe that he could have ever cheated until he finally confessed in his infamous Oprah Interview. Armstrong changed the face of cycling forever, first for his courageous comeback story in the late 90’s- early 2000’s and then with his subsequent doping scandal in 2012. The Program however never really bothers to explore the impact the scandal had on the sport, or on anybody other than Lance for that matter. The film doesn’t take long to establish its viewpoint- Lance Armstrong was a liar and a cheat, and that’s that.
The Program starts brightly enough- Ben Foster’s Armstrong is a bright eyed and enthusiastic cyclist ready to take on the world despite certain physical limitations and the opening phases paint him as a likeable guy with plenty of heart. Then the dreaded trip to Switzerland comes and before we know it Armstrong is spending his time with shady Italian doctor Michele Ferrari and shoving EPO in his arm like it’s going out of fashion. Armstrong’s cancer battle is dealt with in a matter of minutes and before we know it he is riding around in the yellow jersey likes it’s nobodies business.
Whilst The Program may be terribly paced it suffers most from never really exploring the complexities of Armstrong’s decisions. He is instead painted as a Bond Villian- an ego maniacal loon hell bent on winning at any cost. Bar one scene in a children’s hospital all shred of humanity is removed from the man and instead he is seen as a one dimensional cheat who will destroy anybody who gets in his path.
Now I’ve never met Lance Armstrong but it is difficult to fathom that he didn’t care about his Live Strong campaign and that it was simply a cover for his cheating. The man battled cancer and won and whilst he cheated to win his Tour De France titles I struggle to comprehend that the guy was as malicious as the movie suggests here. Even if that was the case it is highly unlikely that he didn’t wrestle with some severe demons in the process.
Credit though must not be taken away from Foster who is uncanny as the disgraced athlete. Chris O Dowd is also entertaining as the Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who was sued by Armstrong years before the revelation for making accusations about doping towards him. The film is at its best when it is a war between the two, with Walsh battling away to expose Armstrong and Armstrong doing his utmost to keep his name clean. The entertaining cat and mouse game between the pair takes the back seat all too often as the movie progresses though.
Frears is an experienced director but his approach to the film at times feels like it would have made a better Television drama. The characters all feel one dimensional and the cycling sequences are hardly groundbreaking, despite his best efforts.
The Program, whilst being entertaining at times is too short on character and paints Armstrong as nothing more than a pantomime villain. Those looking for an entertaining account of the Armstrong saga would be best off checking the documentary The Armstrong Lie instead.