Title: The Program
Director: Stephen Frears
Major Players: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Lee Pace
Out Of Five: 3
At the 2013 LFF, I was fascinated by Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Armstrong Lie, so going to see Stephen Frears’ The Program, his take on the same story, was a no-brainer. How would it translate into a dramatized version? And what about his choice of Ben Foster to play the disgraced cyclist?
Frears is something of an LFF favourite, especially after the success of Philomena (also 2013) and we can look forward to his version of the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, with Meryl Streep in the title role, some time next year. But here his subject holds no surprises: the story is well documented, how cyclist Lance Armstrong not only cheated cancer but also cheated his way to seven Tour de France victories. And went to huge lengths to cover it all up.
There’s no sympathetic central character this time, yet it’s as if Frears can’t bear the audience not to have some empathy with the main protagonist, an anti-hero if ever there was one. So the film opens with a narration from Armstrong (Ben Foster), all about winning and why it’s important. And, at that point, you don’t disagree. We’re shown him having chemotherapy, looking pathetic without his hair and eyebrows and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him. And later, when he visits a children’s cancer centre, he willingly spends time with a desperately ill young boy. There has to be some good in him, right?
And yet …… And yet …… When we see him receiving treatment, we discover later that he owned up to the doctor about taking performance enhancing drugs. Yes, even as early on as that! Eventually even Frears gets to the point where he can’t sit on the fence any further, and the megalomaniac bursts out in an explosive scene between Armstrong and his business manager, Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace). From there, it’s all about the deception, the promotion of the “superman” image and his charity.
The film is based on the book by David Walsh, the Sunday Times sports journalist who alleged Armstrong was involved in doping and was, eventually, proved right. He’s played by Chris O’Dowd, but the film isn’t just about his pursuit of the truth. In fact, the second half of the film plays out more like a detective story: the confession and allegations from cyclist Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), Armstrong’s forceful denials of drug abuse, backed up by law suits and personal intimidation of anybody who attempts to stand up to him. Here, this is confined to a few encounters with other riders, but Alex Gibney’s documentary showed something more frequent and far more obnoxious.
Frears has been quoted as saying that he only talked to one actor about playing Armstrong and that was Foster. And it’s far and away the best decision he made in this film, because not only is the chameleon-like actor an extraordinary likeness for the cyclist, he also delivers a performance that’s almost uncomfortably accurate. All the intensity is there, especially in his eyes, along with the unquestioning self belief: he may ultimately admit what he did, but there’s never sense of him understanding it was wrong.
The story, of course, is still not over as we discover. The Sunday Times may have appealed successfully against its libel suit and recovered its fine, but there are plenty more, including the American government, who are still pursing Armstrong for money. And then there’s the whole doping issue within cycling and the wider sporting community. Armstrong’s fall from grace was spectacular, the film less so. But it does have Ben Foster.
The Program was screened at the London Film Festival on 10 and 11 October and is shown again on the 15th, before its UK release on Friday, 16th. It’s also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 October.