Chances are, if there is one person you will be able to connect to cycling in the last 20 years, it’s Lance Armstrong. For better or worse, his name is indelibly linked to road cycling.
The (in)famous Texan was, at one point, a seven-time winner of that most prestigious of Grand Tours, the Tour de France, and popularized a never-say-die attitude and a high-cadence pedaling style as he climbed up the formidable French cols (mountain roads). He was also busted for blood doping, finally coming clean on public television in 2013, losing his seven wins along with many of his sponsors.
Back in 2015, I was pretty excited to hear from road.cc of a biographical drama film about the events leading up to Armstrong’s rise, cheating, and eventual downfall. Having joined the sport well after the scandal died down, I was eager to see just how British filmmaker Stephen Frears would treat this subject matter.
“The Program” stars Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd as whistle-blowing journalist David Walsh, whose book “The Seven Deadly Sins” became the source material for the film. Beginning in 1993 and chronicling until 2011, Armstrong meets such pivotal characters as Johan Bruyneel, a retiring competitor cyclist that later becomes the US Postal Service cycling team’s sporting director; Dr. Michele Ferrari, the sports scientist and architect of Armstrong’s training/doping program; and Floyd Landis, the super-domestique teammate who later testifies to the US Anti-Doping Agency against Armstrong and Bruyneel.
I remember O’Dowd as one of the regulars on the British sitcom “The IT Crowd;” I was pretty curious how he’d handle the role of Walsh, whom I’ve seen on some old GCN videos is a rather stern-mannered fellow. On the whole, he comes off respectable as Walsh, although the script doesn’t give him much to do, other than become the object of ire for Armstrong once he delves into the many fishy circumstances and actions of the US Postal Service cycling team.
Ben Foster’s performance as Lance Armstrong, though, is quite good. He practically carries the whole movie on his well-defined shoulders. The facial likeness isn’t perfect, but the demeanor, physical presence, and manipulative big-bad-bully tendencies all shine through. There is always a tiny hint that you’re never really sure of the sincerity of his actions.
Even at Armstrong’s physical weakest, while battling testicular cancer, Foster delivers. Weakened by repeated chemotherapy, he doggedly tries to regain his pro cyclist form despite clearly not being up to it.
The supporting cast has star turns as well. It’s hard to imagine anybody else but Guillaume Canet portraying the controversial Dr. Michele Ferrari, and Denis Menochet does good as Johan Bruyneel. Jesse Plemons has to take top honors as Floyd Landis, however. “The Program” reveals Landis’ strict religious Mennonite childhood and how it served as a stumbling block for him to pursue a professional road cycling career. Yet, at the eleventh hour, it is his upbringing that leads to his redemption. Plemons shows Landis’ internal conflicts as a professional cyclist all over his tired, weathered visage, never completely comfortable in his place as a cog in the US Postal Service team machine and its shenanigans.
This being a film about professional road cycling as a sport, “The Program” delivers in that regard. It recycles a lot of existing news and sports footage, in documentary style, but Frears also shoots a lot of his own bike race footage for the film, coordinated by retired cyclist and repentant doper David Millar. Foster and Plemons are largely believable in their roles as Armstrong and Landis on the saddle, and the cinematography of the Tour de France mountain stages is very well done.
Some of the film’s most powerful moments involve Foster’s Armstrong in solitude: pondering post-retirement emptiness while walking in his Texas ranch; mentally reaching out to a beleaguered Floyd Landis as he deals with his own doping scandal on live television; and finally dropping himself into the lake at Dead Man’s Hole after making his own confessions to talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
For all of the mediocre critical reception this film got upon release, I don’t think we can fault Frears and his dedication to making this as good of a cycling-related “crime film” as he can. It’s not meant to be definitively factual, as some accounts are fictionalized, but “The Program” is a pretty damn good cycling film.