Standing in front of a mirror, a man repeats the phrase, “I have never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.” His intonation and inflection changes but his eyes remain piercing, emotionless and glacially cold. Pauses for effect are added, differing facial expressions are selected, each one conveying a slightly altered emotion, as if picking a new jukebox song. Which version of this statement will I tell today’s press conference? And will this be the time I’m found out? It’s hard to comprehend how Lance Armstrong, central figure of British director Stephen Frears’ new film The Program (2015), was able to sleep at night, let alone look at himself in the mirror.
The once seven-time winner of the Tour de France and – in the words of the ADA – architect of “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” Lance Armstrong (an uncanny Ben Foster) pulled wool over millions of eyes for more than a decade. However, what is perhaps most disquieting about The Program is the apparent ease with which the disgraced athlete was able to lie to himself, forsaking all integrity for an all-conquering desire for victory and thirst for fame and fortune. Speaking about himself in the third person is just one of the idiosyncratic techniques designed to alleviate a guilty conscience.
Much like watching the Titanic on a collision course with an iceberg, a viewer of The Program knows how this story will end. Where Frears treads new ground is in the frequent and scientifically precise exhibition of the doping program pursued by Armstrong and other members of his US Postal cycling team, whom he all too easily – the film suggests – coerced into joining him on the road to ignominy. Assisted by the ‘Godfather of blood doping’, Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari (a shady, shell-suited Guillaume Canet, hidden behind tinted glasses), they administered a cocktail of steroids, pumped themselves full of water when need be and exchanged bad blood for good to skirt the authorities; this routine presented as mundane as the brushing of teeth. Their alacrity beggars belief. The man responsible for lifting the lid on Pandora’s box was oft-persecuted Sunday Times sports journalist, David Walsh (played with a charm, affability and doggedness by Chris O’Dowd). His book informed John Hodge’s adequate screenplay but his one-man-against-the-world campaigning could have achieved a higher impact here. A credit reel mention of events post-Oprah does not do justice to his pioneering journalism. Further narrative strands are thrown in for good measure but offer little.
Armstrong meets his wife, they are married and she is forgotten in the space of thirty seconds; Dustin Hoffman appears as insurance man Bob Hamman in an 11th hour cameo; the faux-commercials inserted to represent the tedium of Armstrong’s retirement are laughably clichéd; and the dénouement is troubling abrupt. However, like any mountain stage, the film does have its high points. The seamless transition of library footage to film image, dizzying close-ups of speeding wheels, frantic editing of a blurry peloton culminates in heart-racing action; and Frears has picked a characteristically rocking soundtrack which compliments the pacing. Jesse Plemons, as maligned and marginalised teammate Floyd Landis, also puts in a turn of some note. Saving the best till last, it must be said that Foster – who adhered to the actual doping program during filming – excels as Armstrong. Bearing an unnerving physical resemblance to the fallen cycling hero, he is a revelation in a remarkable tour de force – not France – performance. By the time we reach the aforementioned mirror scene, the actor has wiped any trace of humanity from his character and the on/off switch of lies and the truth has jammed in one position. He elevates The Program to a level which makes it well worth watching.