In Stephen Frears’ new bio pic about Lance Armstrong, his story telling method is unclear but his general opinion of his subject is glaringly clear and it isn’t a positive one. Frears clearly hates Lance Armstrong and rarely gives him any clear good traits at all. To be perfectly honest, Armstrong gets an almost Scarface villain type of treatment and so much so that it almost feels so exaggerated that the entire film feels very unreal. Is this the exact truth or a skewed embellishment by a filmmaker that has an obvious disdain for the man he’s telling a story about? It’s as muddled and confused as the movie, making us forget that Frears has been responsible for some brilliant filmmaking. This movie seems to come from his angry doppleganger.
Lets make no mistake before we head in: Lance Armstrong is not a good guy. He’s a fraud who duped everyone into thinking he was the greatest athlete in the world. At the same time, he helped raise awareness and money for cancer patients and research but there’s a level of taint to it once the cocky smirk is wiped from Armstrong’s face as he finally confesses the dirty truth. For all the good that this money will do, it’s smeared with the dirt and shame that an association with Lance Armstrong brings. People were conned into donating by a false hero, plain and simple.
Frears depiction of these events in his movie start on a horribly uneven timeline. Armstrong (Ben Foster) is playing sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) in a game of foosball for the soon to be seven time Tour De France winner’s first interview before his first major European race. He comes off with a striving and driven need to win that even rears it’s head in the friendly competition of the table top game. This brings Walsh to think that Armstrong may have the makings of a champion or at least someone developing into a formidable competitor in the future.
Placing far behind his personal goal, Lance begs the lead doctor behind the winning team, Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), to put him on the same program. Ferrari refuses, stating that Armstrong doesn’t have the proper physique for good results. Unsatisfied with waiting, he then obtains erythropoietin or EPO, a performance enhancing drug, and gives it to him and his team. They win the race but Lance discovers a lump while in the shower afterwards, which leads to his diagnosis of testicular cancer.
As we know historically, Lance Armstrong beats cancer and ends up heading right back into cycling. Gaining the body shape needed for Ferrari’s program due to the chemo meds, he goes through the rigorous tests and injection regiment which makes him the “superman” we saw win a record seven Tours, which were eventually stripped from him. This first raised the eyebrows of his once supportive journalist Walsh, who’s claims of his doping was completely ignored for a long time. This movie is actually based on the book Walsh would later write, “Seven Deadly Sins.”
This all sounds like the lead up to a great cat and mouse journalistic mystery investigation film where the audience is in the know but it really doesn’t play that way. Instead, Frears goes with a story about a sociopath who’s only goal is glory, damn the consequences. Even with a chameleon like performance from Ben Foster, who is an uncanny lookalike in the role, we are immediately forced to dislike him on every level so even when there is a tender caring moment with him we can’t forget the scaliness of this monster in human form. Had this film be done in a more unbiased and fact based way the film might of had more of an interest to it.
Another large problem with The Program is its choice to only scrape the surface of Lance Armstrong’s life and flesh him out to be completely one dimensional, simply a slimy false front in for the win. Frears and screenwriter John Hodge, a many time Danny Boyle writer, choose to omit marriages, including the Sheryl Crow engagement, and even his own kids. Maybe a personal relationship might have softened or humanized the depicted egotistical monster we are presented, being as Lance Armstrong is the main lead of this film.
That might be the problem right there. This film is based off of the book of Chris O’Dowd’s character, who almost plays third fiddle in this film, which is very apparent when Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis enters the film and starts to play second lead. This could be the major reason for the negative lean to the story which definitely begs for a blend of perspective. Why not blend a bit of Walsh’s, Armstrong’s and unbiased facts on this film? The end result would have been a more believable with a less hand wringing villain like look at a man we already knew was, for lack of a better term, a dirtbag.
The most disappointing thing, besides being a dog of a film from a great director, is that this might be the only kick at this can because recreating this story again is very unnecessary, or at least for me it is. The real Lance Armstrong is already, in my opinion, a detestable human being, just based on his callousness in the face of his moral defeat, so even getting into watching The Program was a chore. He needs no more celebrating at all but if you’re going to do a movie about it, do it right and give the monster his due in every aspect. We know the surface of it, we followed the story as it happen. Tell us a story or a point of view that’s new or at the very least, fully formed. Stephen Frears fails on this end and though he holds the film together with technical work and performances, The Program earns a two out of five from me.