The Program – film review

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The Program – film review

A capable but flawed film that could reasonably be titled 'the Lance Armstrong story lite'

In all honesty, condensing 20 years of one person’s rather complicated life into under two hours was never going to be easy.

The Program is based on David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, the expose on the Sunday Times journalist’s long pursuit of Armstrong. Stephen Frears of High Fidelity and The Queen directs, Ben Foster takes the part of Armstrong and the IT Crowd star Chris O’Dowd plays his nemesis, journalist David Walsh.

The first part of the film races through the early part of Armstrong’s career: meeting Johan Bruyneel while the Belgian was still riding and being one of the also-rans in Gewiss-Ballan’s 1994 domination of Flèche Wallonne, where the Italian team claimed all three podium spots in what is widely considered the first notable result of the EPO era in cycling, and a result that no doubt solidified the need for a ‘proper’ doping system in Armstrong’s mind. We then see Armstrong meeting with Gewiss team doctor Michele Ferrari, deciding to dope, returning to win Flèche in 1996, being diagnosed with cancer, recovering, then coming back to racing and working with Ferrari again. If that sounds like a lot, it feels like it when you’re watching as well, and those not already familiar with Armstrong’s early life and career might find themselves a little lost.

While he occasionally fails to capture the intimidation of the real life Armstrong, at other times Foster’s mannerisms are so spot on you could be forgiven for forgetting who you’re watching

One of the key challenges for Frears and his team working on the film are the cycling scenes. David Millar was brought in as a consultant which has clearly worked to a certain extent, as the look is very good. The bikes and kit all fit the era but although the look is well researched, the riders still look like, well, amateurs. They’ve cleverly manoeuvred around this in certain places – such as the Sestriere scene from the 1999 Tour – by using television footage and interspersing it with on-bike shots of Foster, but for fans of the pro sport there’s no denying that the on-screen peloton has none of the dynamism of its real-life counterpart.

In contrast, some of the key scenes are especially effective. When Armstrong admonishes Filippo Simeoni after the Italian rider testifies against Ferrari, Foster’s imitation of the famous ‘zipped lips’ gesture is uncanny, and really adds to the belief of him as Armstrong. Similarly, the scene in the café where Walsh admonishes his fellow journalists, shouting “why are you not obsessed with this?” is realistic enough that Walsh himself told us he was amazed that O’Dowd hadn’t actually been privy to some of the conversations he had at the time.

Chris O’Dowd (right) gives such a good performance as David Walsh (left) that the latter told us he couldn’t believe O’Dowd hadn’t actually been a part of some of the conversations he recreates

And the effective casting and characterisation is one of the main reasons the film works. If you can ignore the awful Italian accent, Guillaume Canet as Ferrari definitely manages to capture the portentous and enigmatic side of his character. Everything down to the 1990s dress sense is authentic, and in all honestly if Canet’s Ferrari occasionally feels a bit like a Bond villain it’s because his real-life public persona isn’t all that far from it.

Ben Foster does a good job with his portrayal of Armstrong, although he fails to capture the menace at points, instead coming across as petulant, but the fact that he’s believable in the role is hugely to his credit. Playing real people – especially those who have been so prominent in the comparatively recent past – is never easy.

Similarly, Chris O’Dowd is excellent as Walsh but ultimately it’s the storytelling rather than the performances that let the film down.

Characters that played a huge role in the Armstrong story in real life – Betsy Andreau, Emma O’Reilly – are pushed out onto the periphery and although Andreau and O’Reilly are seen dishing the dirt on Armstrong, the havoc that he wreaked on the lives of both is only alluded to. Similarly, although Floyd Landis (played superbly by Jesse Plemons in the film’s standout performance) features heavily, Tyler Hamilton doesn’t appear once and although Hamilton doesn’t feature centrally in Walsh’s telling of the story, the fact that Hamilton isn’t even there as an incidental character during some of the US Postal scenes is a little strange.

The reason Plemons’ Landis works is because he’s easily the most three-dimensional character here. With Armstrong we rarely see more than anger and drive, but director Stephen Frears shows us Landis – whose confession to USADA in the wake of being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France win was key to Armstrong’s downfall – being playful, thoughtful, regretful and angry, displaying self awareness in a way few of the others manage.

Ben Foster will quite rightly receive accolades for his performance as Armstrong, but it’s Jesse Plemons portrayal of Floyd Landis that really steals the show

And that encapsulates probably the film’s biggest problem: it feels more like a summary than an in-depth feature. For all the scenes of drug use (enough to make screenwriter John Hodge’s 1996 script for Trainspotting feel like a children’s film), and behind the scene imaginations of Armstrong, it often scrapes the surface where a more in-depth examination of the characters and their motivations would have been more fulfilling.

Conclusion

The Program isn’t a bad film by any means, but it does struggle with condensing a long and comparatively complex story into Blockbuster feature length and, as you’d expect, details fall by the wayside as a result. If you’re coming to the story relatively fresh (or as fresh as you can be without having your head buried in the sand for the last five years), you’ll likely enjoy on its own merits and it’s an easy way to spend an hour-and-a-half. But coming from a cycling background, as especially anyone who’s read Walsh’s book, or similar detailed accounts from Tyler Hamilton, Juliet Macur or Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell will possibly feel frustrated that key parts of the story – particularly Armstrong’s disgraceful treatment of anyone who provided a dissenting voice – have been omitted.

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