‘The Program’: TIFF Review

This dreary drama about the disgraced cyclist just goes through motions.

Ben Foster stars as Lance Armstrong opposite Chris O'Dowd as the crusading journalist who helped uncover his lies in Stephen Frears' latest fact-based drama.

The disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong's rise and fall are ploddingly chronicled in The Program, director Stephen Frears' latest foray into docudrama after successes with Philomena and The Queen. But where those latter, modestly middlebrow films had likeable little old ladies for protagonists played by charismatic actors (Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, respectively), The Program is centered around the far less appealing figure of Armstrong, an egomaniacal Lycra-clad cheat played with a tiresome lack of nuance by Ben Foster. Premiering in Toronto, this is unlikely to pull ahead of the autumn's peloton of wannabe awards contenders, and at best will only earn middling box-office returns.

Perhaps it's unfair to compare the apples of documentary with the oranges of drama, but when a subject like the one addressed in The Program overlaps so significantly with a recent feature-length work like Alex Gibney's 2013 The Armstrong Lie, a certain amount of cross-fruit appraisal is inevitable. Gibney followed Armstrong closely during his 2009 comeback in the Tour de France, and then confronted him about the many lies he'd told the filmmaker himself after the cyclist's career-long use of performance-enhancing drugs was exposed by former teammates and he confessed (nearly) all in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

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The complexity of the relationship between filmmaker and subject alone made the doc gripping viewing, and one wouldn't expect that Frears could bring that sense of intimacy to the subject. (Indeed, the press notes for the film admit that he knew nothing about cycling before he started the project.) But even taking that personal dimension out of the equation, The Armstrong Lie still adds up to a vastly more comprehensive telling of the story, and a dramatically richer work.

Unable or unwilling to probe Armstrong's psychology in any depth, surely the point of a fact-based drama, The Program becomes just a glib rehash of old news that brings the story up to date, not mentioning for instance in the final subtitles that Armstrong is being sued by his former sponsors, the U.S. Postal Service. Ultimately, the core issues that make Armstrong's story so compelling - drugging in sports, institutional corruption, the destructive nature of competitiveness, the debasing influence of celebrity – are only superficially explored, making this a disappointment on nearly every level.

Eschewing an opportunity to explore Armstrong's early life, the story picks up in 1993 for Armstrong's first Tour de France and first interview with Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) whose book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong formed the inspiration for John Hodge's screenplay. Even during this first encounter, Armstrong cheats, or at least shows ruthless gamesmanship in a simple game of bar room fussball.

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All the same, the easygoing Walsh doesn't take him seriously as any kind of major player in cycling, dismissing him in explicatory dialogue with colleagues as merely a good day racer, lacking the physique for the grueling mountain climbs of the Tour. Armstrong knows it too, and after finishing over 80 places behind the yellow jersey, he's soon talking team-mates into buying performance enhancer EPO in Switzerland where pharmacists sell it over the counter.

The rest is one long downhill slide into infamy. Step by step, the script revisits the known facts of the story: how Armstrong battled cancer, how in hospital he discussed his use of performance-enhancing drugs casually in a conversation with his doctor which team mate Frankie Andreu's wife Betsy (Elaine Cassidy) overheard and later revealed to Walsh, and how once he went into remission he became an unstoppable cycling machine with the help of shady sports doctor Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). Eventually, enabled by team manager Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet), agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace), and the tacit collusion of the cycling authorities, Armstrong would become the drug kingpin of the team, helping his all-too-willing team mates to dope. Dead-eyed and menacing, he becomes the ruthless enforcer of a code of silence about the truth, all the time repeating his mantra to journalists that he "has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs."

What the film does best is to get across the very banality of cheating in the sport, with drug use so endemic evading getting caught becomes part of the game itself. At one point, the whole team in their tour bus is shown as they lie hooked up blood bags so that they can recycle clean blood extracted earlier before they're tested, chatting away about whether Matt Damon will play Lance or not in a mooted biopic of his life. Indeed, some viewers might start to wonder if drug use is so rampant in the sport – not just cycling – why not just accept it, a point neatly rebutted by Walsh here when he says that he didn't come to the top of a mountain to watch chemists race each other.

It's when the film makes such points so sharply that it's at its best, likewise in scenes where it's demonstrated how Armstrong exploited his charity work as a shield to make him invulnerable to criticism. Unfortunately, probably for legal reasons, the film shies away from showing just how much of a celebrity he was at the time. There's nothing here on his relationship with Sheryl Crow or his other famous friends, for example, and even his marriage to Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward) is glossed over with just two quick scenes. Instead of showing the real commercials Armstrong shot for the many companies that sponsored him, Frears creates a montage of fake advertisements to score some cheap laughs, for instance when Armstrong spits out a bad-tasting energy drink the moment a take is finished.

The broadness of that gag encapsulates everything that's wrong with this film. It's so preoccupied with hammering home the point that Armstrong was a liar and a cheat, it can't risk giving him any credit for having charisma to spare, or at least enough cunning to know how to manipulate our current fantasies about heroic sportsmen.  

At least the cycling sequences are dynamically shot by DoP Danny Cohen, while soundtrack choices underscore the period and add a bit of bounce, especially tunes like "Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones and “Mr. Pharmacist” by The Fall.

Production companies: A Studiocanal presentation, in association with Anton Capital Entertainment, Amazon Prime Instant Video of a Working Title Film
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Jesse Plemons, Guillaume Canet, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman, Elaine Cassidy, Laura Donnelly, Edward Hogg, Sam Hoare, Peter Wight
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter:John Hodge, based on the book "Seven Deadly Sins" by David Walsh
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon
Executive producers: Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin, Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Production designer: Alan MacDonald
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Composer: Alex Heffes
Casting: Leo Davis, Lissy Holm, Kathleen Chopin
Sales: Studiocanal

No rating, 103 minutes