“The Program” Movie Review


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     If you were paying attention to the news in 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s findings in their investigation of cycling icon Lance Armstrong was a daily story as millions watched the one time Tour de France champion fall from grace amidst allegations he used performance enhancing drugs throughout his career.  The investigation spawned a book by David Walsh, the Irish reporter who began piecing together various witnesses claiming they had participated and/or observed Armstrong’s drug use in the past, only to have Armstrong hit back with his powerful following and well oiled media machine.  For years, Armstrong was untouchable.  He a cancer survivor, and endorser of the famed Nike “Live Strong” campaign, the seven time winner of the Tour de France brought the sport of cycling to the headlines of the mainstream worldwide media and was a hero and idol to everyone from aspiring athletes to those entrenched in a daily battle against cancer.

     To a certain extent, Armstrong found himself a victim of his own greed.  Fact is, he may have gotten away with his persistent drug use and cemented his place in sports history had he remained retired after winning his seventh Tour de France in July, 2005.  Director Stephen Frears (“Philomena”) covers much of this ground in his new film “The Program”, which chronicles the very early stages of Armstrong’s career and takes us all the way to the point of his memorable interview with Oprah in 2012 where he admits for the first time publicly he used performance enhancing drugs throughout his career.  Based on David Walsh’s book, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”, the film features Ben Foster as Armstrong in what is easily the best performance of his career.  Foster is believable in nearly every aspect, particularly in his physical transformation, which has him well muscled during the early scenes, only to take the shape of a professional cyclist while losing a significant amount of weight.

     The fundamental problem with “The Program” is the sheer amount of material within Walsh’s book and the timeline Frears attempts to cover in a brisk 103 minutes.  John Hodge’s screenplay isn’t able to spend much time on really anything as the narrative moves at lightning speed through several key points in Armstrong’s career and does so without the needed dramatic and emotional dialogue films like this thrive on.  With so much ground to cover, Frears spends less than 10 minutes of screen time depicting Armstrong’s battle with cancer.  Before we can digest the magnitude of the disease, it seems like Armstrong is winning his first Tour de France just minutes later and that includes a scene in which he first meets with Dr. Ferrari, the physician who designs and ultimately provides Armstrong and his team with a concoction of EPO, Testosterone, Cortisone, and other drugs designed to increase performance.  Even more of a head scratcher is the manner in which Armstrong meeting his wife for the first time, and then getting married in the very next scene, is handled with barely an acknowledgment of the relationship and its importance.

     Armstrong’s team is put together for the purpose of protecting him during each stage of the race, but sooner or later impropriety will cause any close knit team to crumble.  As we know, it was certain members of his team who ultimately began to shed light on what was considered the most comprehensive and well thought out performance enhancing drugs program in sports, and Frears ensures the audience gets a heavy dose of the system in place and the measures each rider would take to ensure they weren’t caught.  One of the more notable team members to turn was Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons, who has endured a considerable amount of weight gain and loss between this role and his appearances in both “Black Mass” and season two of “Fargo”.), the talented second fiddle who would go on to win the Tour the year after Armstrong’s first retirement only to test positive for PEDs and have the title stripped.  Though the film does include a phone conversation between Armstrong and Landis just prior to the moment Landis walks into the USADA’s office to confess, I felt as though this portion of the story needed more emotional heft since you have to think Armstrong would be legitimately concerned that Landis would flip.  When he did, Walsh, who is played in the film by Chris O’Dowd, is vindicated after years of roadblocks set by Armstrong himself.

     Much has been reported about Armstrong’s competitive personality, which ultimately meant he was willing to win at all costs, even if that meant the relationships he had with those who supported him would suffer.  Frears moves through the story so fast, utilizing non stop rapid fire editing of cycling scenes featuring both Foster and actual footage of Armstrong, that he completely glosses over the man himself.  We get short, spoon fed lines telling us what Armstrong may have been thinking during some of these moments, but anything of substance is quickly abandoned in favor of countless cycling events as we get a look at each of his seven wins, as well as his third place finish in 2009 after coming out of retirement.  All the while, his wife and kids never appear on screen or play into any of the drama, leaving Armstrong front and center, usually with his long time team director Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet), to wonder what went wrong.  As “The Program” would have you believe, Armstrong is simply a victim of his own desire to win and nothing more.  He didn’t care that he was cheating and it didn’t matter to him who he had to step on, as long as he was standing at the top of the podium at the end of the day.  It is likely there is much more to his story, but “The Program” seems satisfied in presenting the headlines, rather than reading between them.  GRADE: C+