LANCE ARMSTRONG IS A LIAR LIAR WITH HIS CYCLISTS PANTS ON FIRE IN STEPHEN FREARS EXCELLENT FILM “THE PROGRAM”
It’s not like me to post a film from only 4 years ago, but I finally got a way of seeing “The Program”. If you lived through the ’90s and 2000s, the chances are you’ve heard of Lance Armstrong, the legendary cyclist who won the Tour De France 7 consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. Thanks to the 2012 reports from the US Anti-Doping Agency, which found him guilty of orchestrating the most “successful doping program that sports has ever seen”, the 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, and to the unrelenting investigative work of the Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, who challenged the Armstrong myth that he was using enhancing drugs when nobody else wanted to believe it. Because of these sources we know that Lance Armstrong was a liar liar with his cycling pants on fire.
For the largest and most successful part of his professional career Armstrong was lying to journalists, sponsors, cycling authorities, cycling fans and even non-cycling friends alike. Including anyone who believed in him and followed his “LiveStrong” campaign that has raised $500 million in sales from his yellow bracelet program that was sold both nationally and internationally to help raise money to improve the quality of life for cancer survivors. This campaign was inspired due to Armstrong’s own bout with testicular cancer when he was 25. After recovery, he retrained himself to be a long-distance cyclist and became a cycling “legend”.
In 2015 British director Stephen Frears (director of John Cusack’s “The Grifters” and “High Fidelity”) directed “The Program”, a driven and thrilling timeline through Armstrong’s rise and fall. Frears brings a whooshing pace that’s as fast as Armstrong’s bike on the Tour de France. His energetic approach helps bring out several layers from Armstrong’s perspective, exploring why a top sportsman would cheat to win. It also features yet another career defining performance from Ben Foster (“Hell Or High Water”) that captures Armstrong’s physicality and personality. Ben Foster nails the cyclist who was notoriously well known to have a sociopathic narcissism. The casting could hardly be bettered with Ben Foster not just an uncanny physical match for Armstrong but he nails his laser-eyed, do not cross me intensity. Foster captures Armstrong so well and with the help of the make-up department, there are many scenes where you are literally scratching your head wondering if that really is Lance Armstrong or Ben Foster playing Armstrong?
The film is based on Sunday Times Journalist David Walsh’s 2012 book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”. The book was adapted to screenplay from regular Danny Boyle collaborator John Hodge. Walsh noticed that after Armstrong’s recovery from cancer and his improvement in cycling was too good to be true. Walsh continually challenged him to be honest about his work with controversial doctor Michele Ferari. But Armstrong defended his name in court, who years later came out with the truth he had been systematically cheating with banned drugs and blood-cleansing processes.
Subsequently, he was stripped of all his championships. “The Program” shows him as someone who was hell bent on winning, at any cost. Once the truth came out the world of cycling considered him to be the greatest villain ever to sports everywhere. Stephen Frears doesn’t shy away about presenting him as an opportunist and as a manipulative celebrity.
Assisted by zippy editing, the film cleverly inserts Foster into some harrowing race sequences. All kinetically shot by cinematographer Danny Cohen and edited to a breakneck pace by Valerio Bonelli. The cinematography of the film is a class all it’s own. Shots of the French countryside with cyclists toiling their heart out are magnificent. Armstrong’s maniacal pace while cycling uphill is unforgettable. There are real moments of brilliance. There are shocking scenes and a sheer power to the underlying story.
Keep in mind this is not a full blown Lance Armstrong bio pic. This is from his cancer stricken years to his scandalous rise and fall as a sportsman. There’s a fleeting mention to his marriage, but doesn’t delve into any specifics. Armstrong who had a broken marriage, dated a few celebrities (including musician Sheryl Crow) and he ended up remarrying all before his doping allegations became public.
Since the scandal was so thoroughly reported in the media, and finely detailed in Alex Gibney’s acclaimed documentary “The Armstrong Lie”, there aren’t any surprising details in the movie. However Frears brings a visual flair and shows us the extent of him doping up that is visually arresting.
John Hodge’s screenplay is insightful, building strong dramatic suspense along the way, and the film is sharply directed by Stephen Frears, he guides Foster to a strikingly physical performance that’s sweaty and aggressive. A stand out in the supporting cast is “Game Night’s” Jesse Plemons as a fellow cyclist haunted by his conscience of being involved in Armstrong’s scandal. “The Program” delivers an excellent overview of the scandal and builds tension through it’s running time. It’s one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had.