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After a long build-up, the Lance Armstrong biopic, The Program, hits Australian cinemas this Thursday. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef headed along to a preview screening of the film. Here’s what he had to say …
The Program traces Lance Armstrong’s cycling career from the 1994 Fleche Wallonne right through to his now-famous doping confession in January 2013. Along the way we see Armstrong’s first steps into the world of doping, his battle with cancer, his return to the sport, his seven Tour de France victories, his retirement, his comeback and finally, of course, his fall from grace.
It’s a saga that played out over more than 18 years in the real world and trying to wrap everything into a 100-minute film was always going to be an ambitious endeavour. The result is a film that seems to struggle with pacing.
Important scenes, despite occurring years apart, are placed back to back, creating a sense of disorientation for those who aren’t across the details of Armstrong’s rise and fall. Other aspects of the story are glossed over, such as Armstrong’s marriage and family life. Armstrong goes from meeting his soon-to-be-wife to the wedding in less than a minute of screen time. His wife doesn’t appear in the film beyond that point.
Stephen Frears and his team could probably have put together a tighter, more focused film had they focused on one aspect of the Armstrong story rather than trying to cram the entire saga into a single feature film. Alternatively, a 10-part TV miniseries, for example, might have been a more effective way to tell the entire, sprawling story.
The film’s poor pacing is no more evident than at its conclusion. After 90 minutes spent building up the story of Armstrong’s rise, retirement, then return to the sport, the film rattles through his fall from grace and the circumstances leading to his life ban in what feels like mere minutes. The ‘reveal’ of Armstrong’s doping admission is anti-climactic and a largely underwhelming way to end the film.
Much has been made of Ben Foster’s commitment to playing Armstrong, including his study of the Texan’s mannerisms and his controversial decision to take performance-enhancing drugs. For the most part, Foster makes for a compelling and at-times eerily lifelike Lance Armstrong. His facial expressions are on point and on the bike, the two appear similar at a quick glance. Sadly, the script doesn’t give Foster much latitude when it comes to showing us Lance Armstrong the person.
Foster’s Armstrong comes across as largely one-dimensional. We see little of his personality beyond his desire to win at all costs, and the personal impact it has when he doesn’t win. Quips like “I never want to be that close to losing again” are frequent and serve to demonstrate Armstrong’s trademark determination and drive. But with little emotional range on display, it’s hard to empathise or identify with Armstrong in any meaningful way.
In one scene Armstrong appears to shows compassion for a cancer-stricken child but it’s unclear whether the compassion is real or merely a way for on-screen Armstrong to impress onlookers.
Chris O’Dowd does a fine job playing David Walsh, adequately showing the Irish journalist’s journey from being fond of Armstrong, to questioning the Texan’s success, to becoming one of the key architects in Armstrong’s downfall. Fans of Walsh’s work in L.A. Confidential, Seven Deadly Sins and other books might lament the fact that the Walsh portrayed in this film — sceptical of Armstrong’s post-illness transformation and driven to expose the truth — arguably bears little resemblance to the Walsh of today whom, some suggest, hasn’t approached more recent questionable performances with the same fervour.
Australian viewers might get a buzz out of seeing veteran cycling journalist Rupert Guinness appear in the film — Hawaiian shirts and all — as played by actor Mark Little. Sadly, the portrayal is a largely unflattering one and several scenes, such as David Walsh being left behind by a car of fellow journalists (including Guinness) after being blacklisted by Armstrong, are oversimplified to make for more dramatic viewing.
Squeamish viewers and those with an aversion to needles might struggle with The Program — there are many shots (no pun intended) of Armstrong and co injecting themselves with EPO and various other substances. It makes for challenging viewing at times, but it also serves to remind the viewer of the lengths some riders went to (and indeed still go to) to give themselves an advantage.
The cycling-obsessed viewer will likely notice various small inconsistencies and mistakes throughout the film: the portrayal of the 1994 Fleche Wallonne, for example, features footage from what looks like Paris-Roubaix; the Tour de France is described as having 20 stages rather than 21; an early description of VO2max in the film is overly simplistic and arguably incorrect; and you’d never find a press room full of journalists standing and cheering for a particular rider, as the film suggests happened at the 1999 Tour de France with Armstrong.
But there’s still a lot to like here for hardcore cycling fans. The attention to detail in the race recreation scenes is undeniably impressive — from the bikes being ridden to the jerseys being worn; from sponsor logos on the team buses to the team cars being driven. Indeed, for keen cyclists and those that know the finer details of the Armstrong story already, it is these race recreation scenes that are the most compelling part of the film.
The splicing of footage from the era with new footage is also done well and the use of professional riders as extras — such as Kristian House and Servais Knaven — adds a sense of authenticity. Other actors, such as those that played Christophe Bassons and Alberto Contador, look less convincing on the bike.
Overall though, The Program is a film probably best suited to casual observers of the sport and those who aren’t familiar with the minutiae of Armstrong’s meteoric rise and his eventual demise. And despite its pacing issues and the arguably too-broad focus, The Program does do a reasonable job of covering the major moments in the Armstrong’s Saga in an entertaining way.