DIR: Stephen Frears • WRI: John Hodge • PRO: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon • DOP: Danny Cohen • ED: Valerio Bonelli • MUS: Alex Heffes • DES: Alan MacDonald • CAST: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Stapleton, Jesse Plemons, Guillaume Canet
Despite years of persistent allegations and categorical denials of taking performance-enhancing drugs, when the US Anti-Doping Agency in 2012 found that Lance Armstrong’s career was not only punctuated by drug use but that he was also the mastermind behind one of the most systematic doping programmes cycling had ever seen, it hardly sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world. For his most ardent fans, however, it was the tangled web of deceit, woven on the back of a seemingly insurmountable battle with cancer to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times, that was the ultimate betrayal. Acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney laid bare such perennial cat-and-mouse games between the media and the ignominious cyclist in his fly-on-the-wall documentary The Armstrong Lie in 2013, which not only challenged audiences’ perception of honesty but also ruffled Gibney’s own objectives in uncovering the ultimate truth, such was the conviction of the fabulist’s own sympathetic narrative.
British director Stephen Frears’ dramatization The Program, is not a fictional recounting of Gibney’s documentary but is rather an adaptation from David Walsh’s book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the myth-busting sports journalist who spent years trailing the untouchable myth-maker of cycling. Starring Ben Foster as the mercurial champion and Chris O’Dowd as the Irish crusading newshound, Frears’ bio-drama delves into one of the most professionally orchestrated doping programmes in sport, which for almost two decades seemingly hoodwinked the UCI, the media and a legion of fans to allow Armstrong to become one of the greatest cyclists of the twentieth century.
Structuring the narrative around the intricate operations of the doping racket, which began with Armstrong’s first 1999 Tour win to his public fall from grace in 2009, The Program races through the cyclist’s biography at a thumping, cyclonic rate. Charging through his early formative years, from an unknown but cocksure competitor to a testicular cancer diagnosis that should have halted his obdurate ambition but led to an unrivalled golden age of victory, until a restless retirement and doomed comeback exposed the extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs. Executing the hyperactivity of a whirlwind career blighted by controversy and suspicion, The Program pulsates with furious pace, explosive energy and a razor-sharp visual style. Mirroring the real-life saga itself, the film’s intensity, evoked through a seductively luminous aesthetic, on the one hand gleams with the electrifying heat of inexorable bravado, while unpredictable, obscure camera angles jerk from a ferociously fidgety lens with a tour de force that shatters the mood, abruptly suspending the narrative in a directionless, disconcerting limbo.
If Gibney stands accused of becoming too emotionally embroiled in the complexity of Armstrong’s sophisms resulting in a somewhat tangled narrative, Frears has no such qualms in keeping a safe emotional distance, allowing the absurdity of the Armstrong character to unfold in accordance with the prevailing mythology constructed by the man himself. Refraining from judgment, not even through the moral compass of nemesis David Walsh, disappointingly played by a miscast Chris O’Dowd, who never appears hungry enough in catching his man, Frears is fully cognizant of the potency of the Armstrong myth, never allowing fiction to blur fact, when the facts themselves are potent enough. With the benefit of hindsight through Armstrong’s public confession, Foster relishes in the creation of a calculating, superhuman monster, avoiding any descent into caricature, simply because he does not need to, his compulsive, full-bodied performance interchangeable with the real-life construction of a man so familiar to audiences through his own manipulation of the media.
Although the film honours the chronology of the doping programme, the ‘EPG generation’, and Italian physician Michele Ferrari’s pivotal role in the scheme, it is the ambitious arrogance without compunction with which Armstrong perpetuated the myth, in full awareness of his role as a cancer survivor, champion and cultural icon, which ultimately defines the cyclist’s narrative. Foster paints an unambiguous, one-dimensional portrait, eliminating any sympathetic characteristics Gibney may have perceived, to illustrate a deeply calculating and smugly charming man, whose overriding fear of failure motivated a ruthless modus operandi of recurring lawsuits, silencing his detractors for almost two decades. Foster’s portrayal becomes so destructive and poisoned because Frears perceives Armstrong’s egotistical actions were destructive and poisoned, his manipulative tactics in competitive sport no different to his strategy in gaining public sympathy and support for his charitable work. Gibney’s flawed hero has now become Frears’ shameless and disingenuous anti-hero, moving from empathy to disgust and it is the audience who feel the most uncomfortable.
While Gibney’s attempts to unearth the truth behind the lies still evoked sympathy towards the fallen champion, Frears’ film serves as a reminder to its audience of its own flaws, taunting those who perpetuated the myth through an obsession with the cult of celebrity. Frears implies the Armstrong myth endured because those who deified the fraudster allowed it to do so. Foster’s performance is so compelling because in its entire monstrosity, it touches a raw nerve, not only exposing the feebleness of the man but more particularly, the feebleness of those who championed him. Frears points the finger as much at a gushing audience as he does at the make-up of a highly flawed man, the irony not lost that his mythical 2009 comeback came on the back of such highly-charged adoration as much as ego, ultimately leading to his final downfall.
Those familiar with Gibney’s documentary may be slightly disappointed that Frears does not take any new perspective into the prevailing Armstrong narrative nor offer fresh insight into the psyche of the man behind the painstakingly moulded mask. His complicated personal relationships remain closely guarded and The Program instead is about culture’s love affair with celebrity as much as it is about Lance Armstrong’s love affair with himself and success. The film doesn’t romanticise, condemn or exaggerate the mythical hero for dramatic purposes but rather aims to expose a truth, which Gibney could not quite infiltrate. Thanks to Armstrong’s manipulation of the media, he himself has constructed the brutal and ugly portrayal that Foster assumes in The Program. There is no room for compassion towards the truculent cyclist, who used his battle with illness to deceive the integrity of competitive sports and particularly the integrity of adoring fans, whose faith in Armstrong’s successes should have been a source of inspiration but instead has left them feeling exceptionally cheated and fundamentally flawed themselves.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Program is released 16th October 2015