Yet another filmed attempt to understand the Lance Armstrong Problem (I’ve seen two docs on this already), Stephen Frears’ The Program *** has the slim advantage of being a fictionalised version.
Ben Foster plays Armstrong, the doped-up cyclist who was eventually stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after being found out in 2012. And Foster plays him very well, in the saddle and off, injecting Lance’s mania and psychopathy into his performance. I think there’s an Oscar nomination in it for him.
What Frears can also do, working from John Hodge’s script, is imagine the doping scenes. Guillaume Canet plays Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, complete with enormous Carrera-style sunglasses, like a Dr Frankenstein creating a two-wheeled monster.
We see Lance and his US Postal team mainlining blood (I guess they’re more like Dracula, then?) from sacks, transfusing their bodies with EPO and cheating the rather useless inspectors.
But there’s much more to the story. Frears’ other strand centres on David Walsh, the Sunday Times sports journalist on whose book much of the film is also based. He’s the guy who stood up to his hunches, making this also about journalism and reporting. I’d like to have seen more of this, to have made this a straight duel between the cyclist and the journalist (Walsh is played by the charming Chris O’Dowd).
As it transpires, Foster’s performance dominates, just as Lance’s force and cult of personality did in real life, while Walsh’s bravery comes off slightly worse in the dramatic stakes.
But I liked much of The Program, which benefits from Frears’ usual unfussy, unhurried, almost downbeat story-telling. He makes it a sports movie and a tragic fall from grace, as well as a journalist movie and a victory, albeit a hollow one that leaves us saddened at the death of a dream, at the exposing of such a grand lie, the biggest ever in the history of professional sport. Who’s the hero here?
It’s not an easy balance and you can’t help feel some disappointment. For all the scoping of events and convergence of story lines, there’s a lingering sense of there being still more story to tell, and more lies to unravel.
To listen to me talking about The Program with sports journalist David Walsh click here.