Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

The Program


‘Contains the use of performing-enhancing drugs’ warns the title card of The Program, John Hodge and Stephen Frears’ unpacking of the Lance Armstrong myth, and it ain’t joking. Doping paraphernalia and vocab comes at the viewer thick and fast: drips, syringes, tubes, platelets, red and white cells and liquids in tiny bottles with too many syllables on the label. Blood is drawn, test results are cooked and dodgy equipment stuffed out of sight, with Team Armstrong and the anti-doping watchdogs locked in an arms race of detection and evasion. Cycling isn’t about lungs and legs, insists the opening voiceover of Ben Foster’s Armstrong, but the chemical jibber-jabber tells a different story. Spelling out the value of biology and data over feel-good abstractions like passion, determination and reality-show ‘wanting it’, The Program is basically the bicycle Moneyball, or a twisted inversion of The Martian. In close ups needles look like rocket ships.

Working off David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, the Sunday Times sports writer played here by Chris O’Dowd, the film briskly runs through the disgraced cyclist’s rise and fall. Armstrong is a Tour de France rookie struggling on the punishing mountain course and tempted by store-bought uppers, suddenly brought low by testicular cancer. Rendered handily lean by the disease, he falls under the tutelage of Michele Ferrari, a sports doctor with a training strategy as unorthodox as his surname, who enlists the ambitious cyclists and his new recruits in an intense diet of testosterone, growth hormones and whatever else will give them the edge. Armstrong’s meteoric revival, from near-death to seven-time champion, provokes ecstatic reactions from spectators and journalists. But for an incredulous Walsh, it’s just too good to be true.

As the allegations surface, the sports-industrial-complex starts circling the wagons. Walsh’s rabble-rousing makes him an outcast even amongst his peers, afraid of being tainted by association. Everyone’s bought into the Armstrong brand, and everyone has something to lose from seeing it devalued. The Program is as much about the seductive power of myth-making as it is about professional athletics; how damn good a story Live Strong was, and how it was maintained by networks of interests. Armstrong is the golden goose in a yellow jersey; even the UCI governors have to keep on his good side. In interesting diversions, the film suggests that the deference comes from a deeper, more potent desire to believe in the miraculous (the will to survive is more powerful than any drug or pill, he has the gall to tell a room of cancer victims). There are complexities highlighted, about the problematic rhetoric of self-belief and positive thinking employed against illness, and the fishiness of natural ability as a foundational sporting concept, though not quite fleshed out.

Foster does a good job of mimicking Armstrong’s unnerving baby-face blankness; a panto asshole who hides behind his ‘cancer shield’. He’s a difficult personality to capture; even after admitting on Oprah (always a sucker for showbiz) that he indeed doped, he has refused to disclose fuller details, enigmatic to the end. But the screenplay and direction of Foster doesn’t do enough to fill out the gaps. There is little insight about Armstrong’s motivation or internal tension, other than he really, really wants to win races. And I sort of knew that. As a result, the story doesn’t really work as either a character study, or indeed an investigative thriller. Walsh’s reporting process isn’t laid out with much vigor or detail and ultimately (spoiler), it wasn’t a newspaper expose that ended Armstrong’s reign; it was the tell-all testimony of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), a guilt-ridden Mennonite who was part of ‘the program’, that brought the hammer down. The Program tells the Armstrong story with professional diligence, but could’ve done with some extra juice of its own. Conor Smyth

The Program is out now in cinemas nationwide.


Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.