Film / Reviews

'The Program': Stephen Frears cycles round the edges

by James Hadfield

From the NFL’s deflated footballs to the bribery allegations besmirching Tokyo’s Olympic bid, it can feel like the entire apparatus of professional sport has become hopelessly corrupt. But are the fans also complicit?

In a memorable scene during “The Program,” a zippy account of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, sports writer David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) asks his editor if journalists aren’t allowed to question the American cyclist’s remarkable story because “that would reveal the world to be a gray piece of s—-.” You have to wonder sometimes.

The Armstrong myth — a cancer survivor who went on to win the Tour de France for seven consecutive years — was so inspirational that it seemed unassailable. Walsh went after him with such tenacity that he earned the nickname “Little Troll,” yet he struggled to produce any charges that would stick. When The Sunday Times published excerpts from a book of his in 2004, alleging that Armstrong had taken performance-enhancing drugs, the cyclist successfully sued the newspaper for libel.

The Program (Giwaku no Chanpion)
Rating
Run Time 103 mins
Language English
Opens JULY 2

At the peak of his fame, there was regular talk of a Hollywood biopic based on Armstrong’s life. That film has finally arrived, but it’s adapted from Walsh’s 2012 book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” rather than the cyclist’s self-aggrandizing autobiographies.

Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter John Hodge have turned the story into a schematic but entertaining thriller, which hurtles from one episode to the next like it’s doing 100 kilometers per hour on a downhill stretch in the French Alps. One minute, a post-chemo Armstrong is struggling to overtake a soccer mom on his bicycle; the next, he’s in a lab getting injected with erythropoietin by a shady physician, Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet).

The irony is that Armstrong’s reign began just as the Tour was trying to clean up its act: 1999 had been billed as the “Tour of Renewal,” after a doping scandal forced two teams to withdraw the previous year. Instead, Armstrong implemented a doping regime that was both more sophisticated and harder to trace. We see him reclining in his hotel room while hooked up to a blood bag, and getting a last-minute saline infusion to foil a spot drug test.

“The Program” also touches on his cozy relationship with the Union Cycliste Internationale, which in retrospect seems almost surreal. In 2002, he even donated $100,000 to fund the purchase of a new drugs-testing machine.

In squeezing such a welter of detail into a succinct, 103-minute running time, the film provides a concise but ultimately shallow portrait. It’s got plenty to say about doping, but less about the sport itself. Though its theatrical release in Japan is timed to coincide with the start of the 2016 Tour, “The Program” won’t leave viewers much better equipped to understand what they’re watching on their TV screens.

The film is anchored by a strong performance from Ben Foster, who captures both Armstrong’s charisma and his underlying chilliness: He’s equal parts inspirational speaker, drill sergeant and Steve Jobs. Touring a children’s cancer ward, he displays genuine tenderness; when another cyclist breaks the code of silence about doping, he sidles up to him during a race and threatens him like a Mafioso.

Yet “The Program” never quite gets the measure of its man. Armstrong’s personal life is given such glancing treatment that, when he’s shown on the victory podium in 2003 alongside his three children, you’d be forgiven for wondering where the tykes came from. And though Foster is given a few choice scenes toward the end, the film’s ending is disappointingly limp.

“It’s just this mythic perfect story, and it wasn’t true,” a chastened Armstrong confesses to Oprah Winfrey, just before the credits roll. Oh yeah? Tell us something we didn’t already know.