Written by Cycling, Films

The Program

Right at the beginning of The Program, the BBFC certificate popped up. The film is rated 15 for “strong language, use of performing-enhancing drugs.”

Quite. (And I realise, I’m not the first person to note this.)

The Program is Stephen Frears’ new film about Lance Armstrong, the seven-times winner of the Tour de France, before being stripped of those honours when he finally admitted to cheating and taking drugs throughout a large part of his career.

As such, the film is completely on target for me. As I’ve written in the past, I was one of those people who was essentially hoodwinked by Armstrong, and bought the Kool-Aid. Why would someone who nearly died of cancer, come out the other side and take potentially dangerous performance enhancing drugs? And to be clear, there were dangers. EPO – the drug of choice – increased your red blood cell count, and hence provided you with a performance boost, but they also increased the viscosity of your blood, potentially leading to blood clots and the risk of stroke or death.

But what I’d not at the time really understood is how driven Armstrong was. In many respects, sportsmen and women have to be more driven than the rest of us. We might give up, but they’ll continue, because only that way can they reach the top of their game.

I also didn’t really understand quite how nasty Armstrong was. He was ruthless. He understood the cycling omerta – the code of silence that meant that even if you weren’t taking performance enhancing drugs, you didn’t drop anybody else in it.

Frears’ film, based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, and written by John Hodge, follows Armstrong’s complete career. And the film tells the story in fairly basic A to B to C steps. That means that an awful lot of story has to be compressed into 103 minutes.

We start with a relatively novice Armstrong showing up in Belgium where the other riders don’t like the cut of the Texan’s jib. Armstrong was already a World Champion, and his fellow cyclists, including Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) plan to leave him for dead, which they then do.

Armstrong (Ben Foster) realises that he needs to talk to the key doctor working in the field Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and get on “The Program.” Ferrari takes one look at Armstrong’s physique (a curiously CGI’d body attached to Foster’s head) and declares that his power to weight ratio will be all wrong. He’s too big.

Then disaster strikes as Armstrong suffers from cancer. He recovers and slowly gets back on his bike. One entertaining scene shows him being overtaken by a middle-aged lady on a sit-up-and-beg bike in the US.

From there the story follows, to me, familiar path of Armstrong on the road to recovery, now working with Bruyneel, fully adopting drugs, and then proceeding to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.

Set around this story we have the incident with Armstrong admitting to taking drugs in front of teammate Frankie Andreu, and his wife Betsy. And then there’s the introduction of perhaps the oddest of characters, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), brought up in a strict Mennonite home, but willing to be Armstrong’s number two. We also see how “Mr Moto” drove around dropping off the drugs to the US Postal Team, and how even a soigneaur like Emma O’Reilly became implicated in the lie.

Set against all this is David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), initially impressed with the brash American, thinking perhaps he can win one day races, but slowly being amazed as he returns from cancer, stronger than ever and taking on the Tour. As he begins to have suspicions, key scenes are played out including Armstrong and Walsh confronting one another at a press conference.

The film follows right through Armstrong’s return to the Tour in 2009, and ends with his admittance on Oprah, that he did indeed take drugs.

If this whole story is new to you, then I think you might enjoy this film more than me. But if it’s not, then the story is better told in either The Armstrong Lie, or one many books on the subject including Walsh’s own.

The problem is that the story is necessarily involving and complicated, and it’s not something that easy to pare down. And that makes the film a bit lumbering. That’s not to say that they’ve not done a decent job of it, and I prefer this to somehow bringing things together too neatly around a smaller stage. But to be honest, the film did need more focus.

Foster is decent as Armstrong – he looks a lot like him for one thing – although I’m not certain he’s totally captured him. We do get the light and dark of his character – willingness to drop everything to spend time with a kid suffering from cancer through to drawing his finger across his lips to “zip it” (on camera no less!) when a fellow cyclist starts talking to an inquiry. But I think books like Walsh’s or even team-mate Tyler Hamilton’s give a deeper picture of Armstrong’s real character. We don’t quite get that here. He’s clearly a driven character who saw winning as more important than anything, but I’m not quite sure we see the sheer ruthlessness.

The film takes an interesting perspective on presenting the actual cycling sequences with a combination of re-staged action and archive footage, including the full Phil and Paul commentaries. It sort of works, and at the same time doesn’t.

There’s a problem just about every sports film I’ve ever seen has – and that’s the fact that the film camera takes you places that the TV camera can never take you. So it just feels odd, because sport is something we’re all very familiar with from its televising. And that’s a bit of a problem in cycling because cameras on the back of “Motos” can take you pretty close. I’m surprised that more films don’t instead recreate a TV experience, adopting the same camera angles and talking the language of sports TV coverage rather than the language of cinema. The problem often there is that they’re desperately trying to avoid showing the lack of thousands of extras in the crowd, by cropping closely. That’s the case here too. We get some great alpine climbs, but it’s all too clear that the budget has not extended to the vast crowds you’d get on such race stages. Indeed it sometimes looks as though we’re watching a rural little cycling event somewhere.

The producers have done very well technically, getting the right jerseys at various points in Armstrong’s career. While what his team is called is hardly important in the scheme of things, you know that they’ve put enough attention to detail to get those things right. But in the end I’m left wondering whether they shouldn’t have just stuck with the archive footage.

Overall it’s certainly not a bad film, but it feels just a little bit average. I think sports films are a hard genre to pull off, and despite the significant milestones in Armstrong’s life, it all feels a little undercooked. I think in the end, you’d be better off seeing The Armstrong Lie if you only had to choose one film. Not a failure, but not great.