(M) Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd. Jesse Plemons
Lance Armstong’s name has become synonymous with cheating but, for more than a decade, he was considered to be one of the greatest athletes in sporting history. The Program is a glimpse behind the scenes of what led to the eventual downfall of the seven-time Tour De France champion. W
ith an uncanny resemblance to the infamous cyclist, Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) plays Armstrong from his days of relative obscurity, through enduring testicular cancer and eventually on to becoming the leader of the US Postal Services cycling team. His primary adversary throughout his career was a sport journalist named David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd). One of the few reporters who was willing to question Armstrong’s mercurial rise to fame, Walsh risked his relationships and reputation within the news community to fight for the integrity of the sport. Director Stephen Frears (Philomena) focuses on the prolonged and questionable fame of Armstrong in the world of cycling and his eventual admission to deception throughout his cycling career.
The fact Lance Armstrong cheated throughout his career is one of the most highly reported events in sporting history. So, you know, that revelation is hardly a spoiler. Foster and O’Dowd brilliantly portray their adversarial roles in this tale of cycling fraud. Both characters epitomise their true-life characters and deliver the necessary tension to keep things moving along in this fast-paced ride.
Frears utilises other support players to fuel the fire in this battle for truth and ethics. But the multitude of characters comprise only an one-dimensional narrative that spotlights the elaborate scheme to deceive the organisers and fans of the world’s best known cycling event.
Unfortunately, this is where any accolades end for this cycling movie. Even with the well-defined adversarial roles, renowned director Frears manages to only convey one-side of the tale. Frears de-humanises Armstrong to such a degree that even if everything on screen is actually accurate, this film comes off as a hatchet job of the tarnished champion. The cyclist is known for his sociopathic tendencies and arrogance, but outside of the scenes depicting his battle with cancer, there are very few glimpses into his personal life.
The world may only know of his cancer, cycling and cheating, but it would have been worthwhile to provide a balanced story that included more intimate details of his life. Also, a key component missing from the film was showing how Armstrong was able to bring the world along with him, for such an extended period of time, on his exceptional joyride. Frears stays on one track and merely shows the elaborate nature of the cheating and, with the unbalanced nature of the film, produces a bizarre level of sympathy for the dethroned sporting legend.
When justice is ultimately delivered, the film does not provide any satisfaction in Lance being brought down. Given it is trying to tell such a contemporary and compelling real-life story, The Program comes off as a second-rate dramatic-documentary produced for Fox Sports.
What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
Mankind has a deep need for fairness and the delivery of justice. Stories like The Program are made because people want to know if the perpetrators of deceit are brought to justice. Why else would anyone care about a man riding a bike through the mountains of Europe? So, where does this need for justice get its origins? Some may say that laws and rules are something that were created by man over time, but there has to be an ultimate authority. Another consideration is that the need for justice is hard-wired into mankind and the explanation can be found in the words and very nature of God. Being a God of justice and studying through His words shows that he wants all things to be made right. It might seem a stretch to think that a story about a cheating cyclist can initiate a deeper consideration of justice and God, but why not seek the real answers to justice and where they can be found.
- What does the Bible say about guilt? (Psalm 103:11-12, 1 John 1:9)
- Can we ever find justice? (Proverbs 21:15, Romans 12:19)
- What does the Bible say about aspiring to leadership? (Jeremiah 29:11, John 16:33)
Leaving the cinema…
After reading his biography years ago, I will admit to not being a fan of Lance Armstrong. The book did not make me care about him or the sport of cycling. Neither did this film. It seems to portray his personality accurately, but fails to deliver the needed layers to make this a compelling cinematic journey.