The Program tells the I-never-took-performance-enhancing-drugs-oh-hang-on-yes-I-did story of Lance Armstrong. However the real star of the tale is not the professional cyclist but David Walsh. He is the Sunday Times journalist who spoke out about Armstrong’s performances and faced the wrath of the Armstrong machine. Stephen Frear’s film is inspired by Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins.
Ben Foster is kept busy playing Armstrong, looking remarkably like the Texan who is famous for having achieved – and then having been stripped of – seven Tour de France titles. Chris O’Dowd has less to do as Walsh, asking awkward questions and gradually being ostracised from the cycling community for having the nerve to question Armstrong’s achievements. Walsh became suspicious because Armstrong’s best mountain stage finish in the Tour was 39th – then he suddenly blew the field away.
The film is necessarily compressed. Much has to be missed out when stories spanning years are told on screen. But it jumps too quickly and without much obvious reason from Armstrong’s insistence on his innocence to his admission on Oprah that he had been cheating. The whole issue doesn’t feel as bad as it was. Although there are scenes of Armstrong bullying people there is little sense of the ongoing intimidation and bad mouthing that went on to discredit anyone – even friends and colleagues – who spoke out.
Vintage footage and commentary from past Tours is merged with newly filmed shots of cyclists – usually racing terrifyingly downhill. There are reconstructions of the mechanics of doping and a moment when Armstrong discusses who will play him in the movie of his life. Matt Damon was his choice back when the story wouldn’t have included a fall from grace.
Having recovered from cancer Armstrong set up a charity to help beat cancer. The part played by this charity in keeping difficult questions away is shown, but how the systemic cheating went on for so long remains unclear. Gifts to the cycling federation are mentioned but not followed up. The federation’s acceptance of a backdated prescription is also not investigated.
There are too many shots of needles, blood and injections for the squeamish. But the film plays as a series of career-era facts. There is nothing of his earlier life and we learn nothing of his motivation save for a desire to win. There is no understanding why he suddenly caved in and admitted the truth.
The Program tells of a life that knew highs of sporting success and lows of cancer treatment. If the film had been made ten years ago Armstrong would have been a hero. Now he’s a villain. But he’s young enough that maybe in another ten years there will be another chapter written which will change the arc of his life again.