The Program (2015)

Champion. Hero. Legend. Cheat.

Okay, if you’ve seen Alex Gibney’s 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie or Alex Holmes’ Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (2014), you can probably skip this one — I’m pretty sure anyone interested in the champion-cyclist-turned-drug-cheat controversy already knows the deal here. However, director Stephen Frears’ new Armstrong flick The Program, while aptly realized and acted, more or less fails to justify its own existence, falling short of its predecessors in terms of offering fresh insights or a unique perspective on the notoriously outrageous account.

Based on sports journalist David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Academy Award nominated filmmaker Stephen Frears, Philomena (2013), and screenwriter John Hodge, Trainspotting (1996), quickly cover (a little too quickly if you ask me) the whole shameful saga in about 103 brisk minutes.

'Please exit the rear in an orderly fashion.'
‘Please exit the rear in an orderly fashion.’

When Lance Armstrong (a terrifyingly convincing Ben Foster) made a comeback from his life-threatening cancer in 1996, and went on to win the Tour de France only three years later, in 1999, his triumph seemed too good to be true … well, that’s because it was. But for Irish journalist David Walsh (a charming Chris O’Dowd) — who wrote for the Times of London — Armstrong’s superhuman feats raised a number of cumbersome questions. Going against the grain and risking his own career, Walsh was in the minority; he was one of the very few willing enough to challenge the star athlete’s miraculous accomplishments. What transpired over the next 13 years was a feud aimed at uncovering the truth behind Armstrong’s slippery exploits, a saga that culminated in October 2012, when the cyclist was stripped of his seven Tour victories for using performance-enhancing drugs, and barred from the sport for the rest of his life.

Shot in a semi-documentary fashion, The Program covers Armstrong’s golden years — where he recovered from cancer, won seven Tour titles and gained A-list celebrity status — along with the bleaker moments of his career and the protracted scandal that lead to his shame and collapse. Armstrong advocates (if there are still any left out there) should steer well clear of this one as Frears doesn’t paint the cyclist in an overly positive light, portraying the Texan as a spineless liar who used his ‘cancer-survivor’ status to repel any accusations that were made against him, showcasing his rage and readiness to intimidate anyone inclined to speak to the press about the doping culture.

Given that The Program is based around Walsh’s writing, it’s a little unusual to learn that his character is kept at a distance. Nonetheless, Walsh’s facial expressions actually do a lot of the talking, mainly in scenes where he’s shunned by his colleagues and watches crowds cheer for Armstrong’s fraudulent rise — a con job he knows no one’s really prepared to question. Underlining the facts, The Program illustrates how Armstrong was deceitful enough to evade testing positive for performing-enhancing drugs, parlaying his winnings over to the wildly successful Livestrong Foundation in an effort to gain support from global fans with his cancer-survivor legend almost becoming an international brand.

'Where's that IT support?'
‘Where’s that IT support?’

Pushing reporters to the side, The Program spends the bulk of its running time exploring the back-stabs, bullying and behind the scenes procedures that arose during Armstrong’s rain as World Champion, highlighting the cyclist’s obsessive drive to win which ultimately brought about his downfall. Considering the complicated makeup of the Armstrong account, several key points have been skimmed over or completely omitted — Armstrong meets and marries his wife, Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward), in about two minutes flat, then she’s never referred to again — with Frears touching on important moments as if he’s ticking them off a Wikipedia checklist; even so, The Program remains entertaining enough if one can withstand its sluggish cancer-centric opening half-hour or so.

Cinematographer Danny Cohen, The King’s Speech (2010), delivers some striking bike riding footage in amongst all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, a nice contrast from the hospital rooms, training centers, and mobile blood transfusion units we’re exposed to — locations where the Armstrong camp carried out their dirty deeds.

Ben Foster, Lone Survivor (2013), delivers a fine fictionalized version of the disgraced cycling psychopath Lance Armstrong, exhibiting the athlete’s deranged psyche while in the midst of the doping scandal. Chris O’Dowd, who has made his name for himself in the tongue-in-cheek TV series The IT Crowd (2006), gives a straight-faced performance as journalist David Walsh, the voice of reason amidst the whole Armstrong saga, even if the actor’s presence comes across as a bit of a name drop or novelty.

Jesse Plemons, Black Mass (2015), is great as the Mennonite rider Floyd Landis, adding richness to the morally conflicted cyclist who plays a major role in unveiling Armstrong’s illicit empire. Guillaume Canet, Love Me If You Dare (2003), certainly looks the part as the Italian doping czar Michele Ferrari, portraying the character with a hint of Nazism while Lee Pace, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), is forgettable as Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s agent. Oh, Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988), shows up in a scene or two as Bob Hamman, an agitated promotions company chief whose connection to the entire thing is barely made clear.

Ride Like the Wind
Ride Like the Wind

While lacking in fine detail, The Program still makes for an engaging entry-level documentary, even if director Stephen Frears doesn’t give patrons any time to breathe (particularly those who aren’t overly familiar with the Armstrong scoop), relaying events as though he’s putting together a sizzle reel for how the most sophisticated doping program in the history of cycling went down. In any case, The Program exists as a swift, well-acted biopic; one that affirms the well-known phrase ‘cheaters never prosper.’

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Program is released through Studio Canal Australia