Lance Armstrong confessed to having cheated to win the Tour de France. This is his story.
Based upon the book, Seven Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh (played in the movie by Chris O’Dowd), together with the USADA report on doping, The Program gives a potted history of Armstrong’s life from his entry to the Tour de France to his fall from grace in 2013, confessing his doping to the world via an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
We open on the road in the mid 1990s, with Armstrong (Ben Foster) in the pack on a particular leg of the race. Sunday Times journalist Walsh has interviewed Armstrong, and feels the young man is a good rider, but won’t make it to the top. Armstrong wants that yellow jersey though, by any means possible, and approaches opposing team doctor Michel Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) for help. He is rebuffed, and not long after is diagnosed with testicular cancer.
So it’s a bridge too far for Walsh when Armstrong comes back from Chemotherapy to win the Tour not once but seven times. He tries to get traction on the story, but Armstrong has never tested positive to drugs, so he is stymied time and again.
Armstrong’s ego is his greatest strength and his achilles heel. He’s a driven man, but as another rider points out, he shouldn’t get the wins based on his body mass, and returning to the sport he retired from is his ultimate downfall. It’s difficult to tell whether Armstrong is truly altruistic when he creates a cancer charity, because it renders him almost fireproof against criticism from others. In one stunning piece of P.R., he actually donates money to UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), the racing administrative body, which is used to purchase a machine for blood testing. His ego knows no bounds, and why would it? He’s racing’s golden boy, and with the help of agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace), he can’t lose.
The Program walks the tightrope between documentary and drama, and Stephen Frears has directed a workmanlike story moving from point “A” to “B”, with plenty of high-speed cycling close-ups. Editing by Valerio Bonelli does the job of moving the story forwards and it’s compelling enough, but he has some odd style choices, such as in the regular freeze-frames, where a character is introduced and named. The last time this worked was in Snatch (2000), but here it seems unnecessary except to those who know the story intimately, in which case, they’d recognise who the characters are anyway.
As a story telling the rise and fall of a man obsessed with winning, The Program hits the right notes. But like Jobs (2013), it seems less than the sum of its parts, and could easily have been a telemovie. Perhaps focusing more on Walsh’s investigation could have made the movie a more compelling tale, but the screenplay by John Hodge concentrates on the team and Armstrong’s strong-arm tactics on fellow team mates and other riders. This means there’s little for the viewer to work with, no real drama. The viewer is carried along, like a rider on a downhill run, without seeing the possibilities in other characters.
The Program is in cinemas from 26th November through StudioCanal.