From zero to hero, then back to zero again; sporting’s greatest icon Lance Armstrong makes for one hell of an interesting tale. Given the timing of its release, this bracing biopic clearly considers itself a strong contender for Oscar season.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Is there a more conflicting, yet inarguably fascinating figure in the history of competitive sport than pro cyclist Lance Armstrong? Overcoming a case of near-fatal testicular cancer in his mid-twenties, he went on to win the Tour de France an incredible seven consecutive times, and became one of the world’s most inspirational figures; only to be stripped of his honours after the devastating discovery that he had been using performance-enhancing drugs the entire time.
Stephen Frears’ (The Queen, Philomena) biopic The Program chronicles Armstrong’s (Ben Foster) life; from his early dreams of domination, to his induction into Michele Ferrari’s (Guillaume Canet) “program” of cheating via doping, and the investigation of this by journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) – a discovery that shocked and outraged the world.
The Program’s single greatest downfall is, most ironically, something Armstrong did everything he could to avoid – coming second. Arriving hot on the heels of Alex Gibney’s seminal 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie (which was actually created during the exposure of Armstrong’s doping), The Program cannot help but feel like a re-tread, covering much of the same ground without the benefit of a realistic angle.
Where it does succeed, however, is in offering dramatic insight into events that a documentary can only offer in retrospective discussion, and an opportunity to see what motivated Armstrong to make the decisions he did. A speedy pace serves the film well; it feels as if we are competing in the race of Lance’s life alongside him, though this does mean that some interesting points that – again, The Armstrong Lie was given room to explore – are glossed over.
You might ask then, “Why bother?” but Frears’ biopic does do two things extremely effectively. The first is the rather graphic visualisation of what Armstrong was put through, then put himself through – the transformation of his cancer-riddled body through gruesome chemotherapy, later followed by the draining and replenishing of his blood into bags to avoid EPO detection throughout the Tours. It’s skin-crawling, and difficult to watch, but proves the extreme lengths Armstrong, his teammates, and so many other competitors subject themselves to in the name of winning.
The second is its completely committed performances, namely from Ben Foster (who actually took performance-enhancers throughout the production to further encompass Armstrong’s figure and mentality). Foster has been a solid acting presence in Hollywood for the last twenty years, only occasionally standing out from the crowd (see 2009’s The Messenger), but here he is perfectly cast as the notorious champion – blurring the lines between sympathetic and loathsome, he’s a magnificent monster, and bound to finally earn the recognition he deserves. Elsewhere Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons is excellent as Floyd Landis, a frustrated former teammate coldly betrayed by Armstrong; Guillaume Canet is sharp yet humorous, and Chris O’Dowd looms menacingly over the whole misconduct, threatening to pull the rug out from under Armstrong’s feet (or wheels?) at any time.
Where The Program is bound to divide audiences is its lack of bias – it neither paints Lance as wholly receptive, nor truly detestable; though perhaps this is best left to personal opinion, much like real life. While responsible for some deplorable things – including one of history’s greatest cons – there’s no faulting the enormous service he did for cancer charities, or the hope, inspiration and unity he once brought to the world; did it really matter that all this was based on a deceit? See it for yourself and decide – just don’t double-bill it with The Armstrong Lie.
The Program is available in Australian cinemas from November 26th
Images courtesy of StudioCanal