The Program review - 'a compelling tale of fallen hero Lance Armstrong'
Stephen Frears' film brings the Armstrong story to life
I was living in Paris when Lance Armstrong first won the Tour in 1999. Even then, some French commentators were muttering darkly about doping: Armstrong had beaten his closest competitor by over seven minutes, and had shown little previous sign of such extraordinary talent. At the time I assumed it was just Gallic sour grapes: he was a Yank, and only Europeans won the Tour.
Like everyone else, I fell in love with his story: the cancer, the recovery, the charity, the miracle comeback. Lance was courage and character personified. "We're all the authors of our own life story," he'd later say, "go out there and write the best damn story you can."
It was all horse manure, as we now know: for many years he enhanced his performance using a cocktail of drugs, and bullied into silence anyone who threatened to expose him. He was eventually exposed thanks to the fearless efforts of journalists like Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, and his nefarious career was pretty well catalogued in Alex Gibney's 2013 documentary, The Armstrong Lie. Which raises the question of whether or not we really need another film on the same subject.
Turns out we do, because The Program is a drama, not a documentary, which allows it to flesh out the bones of this story into something approaching a minor Shakespearean tragedy. And Ben Foster, a fine actor who's too often had to make do with solid supporting roles, is compellingly good as the hero who was too good to be true.
Stephen Frears' entertaining film is based on Irish-born Sunday Times journalist David Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins, and begins in the mid-1990s when Armstrong was a young cyclist trying to make his name on the European Tour. Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) spots his grim determination, but reckons Armstrong's all wrong physically for the gruelling challenge of the 21-day Tour de France, and hasn't a cat's chance of ever winning it.
Lance, meanwhile, reckons the stellar performances of the Tour leaders must be chemically enhanced, and begins figuring out how to catch up with them. Then comes the cancer, which knocked him out of action for over a year and devastated him physically. But in The Program we see how it also gave Armstrong a chance to remodel his physique and emerge slighter, lighter and looking a lot more like a Tour contender.
But it was his dark alliance with Italian trainer Michele Ferrari that would really make the difference. Played here in a frankly ludicrous turn by Guillaume Canet, Ferrari is presented as the Svengali of a remarkable doping regimen undertaken by Armstrong and his US Postal team colleagues that would later be described as "the most sophisticated doping campaign sport has ever seen".
Ferrari, Armstrong and the US Postal team director Johan Bruynell (Denis Menochet) initiated a fiendishly clever system for fooling blood and urine tests, which brought rich dividends: Armstrong would go on to win the Tour seven times. What this film gives us above all is a brief glimpse into the tortured soul of Lance, a fierce competitor who couldn't accept that there are some things you're just not meant to win. His treatment of erstwhile colleagues like the Irish Tour masseuse Emma O'Reilly are rightly presented as odious, but we also see the other side of Armstrong, as he changes his plans in order to spend a night keeping a terminally ill child company.
He's an enigma, a man who bought success, backed himself into a corner and refused to let go of the glass kingdom he'd so cunningly constructed. Did he end up believing his own lies? Ben Foster's Armstrong seems a master of self-justification and moral equivocation: the actor brilliantly catches the cyclist's uptight physicality and pugnacious touchiness, and something dies in his watchful eyes when he realises the game is finally up.
The Program (15A, 103mins)