Exactly three years after the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published its Reasoned Decision on Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner who was stripped of those titles still polarises opinion. A pariah to most, but still a hero for many, The Program, which hits UK cinemas this weekend, charts his rise and fall.
I popped along to a preview screening of the film, and overall, my thoughts are that while this is a well told telling of the facts, it’s not an in-depth analysis, and we don't come away from it with any more of an idea of Armstrong's motivations – apart from the fact that he liked winning, and would use any means to ensure he did.
If you’re thinking of going, here’s what you need to know.
1. Memories can be deceiving but the camera doesn’t lie, and even though I was there at the time I’d never realised just how baggy and generally lacking in style 1990s-era tracksuits were. Okay, maybe that’s not going to be everyone’s number one takeaway talking point for this film. So onto the next one …
2. The movie is based on Sunday Times journalist David Walsh’s book, Seven Deadly Sins. While that was published after Armstrong’s ban, the USADA investigation that brought that about owes much to questions first raised in Walsh’s 2003 work, LA Confidentiel. If you ever hankered after having the whole of USADA’s case laid out before you but couldn’t actually be bothered to read through the 202-page document, this is the film for you.
3. Some of the cycling scenes here are pretty cool, some of them are pretty risible. As I recall Lance Armstrong did at least pretend to make it look hard and my guess is he wasn’t pretending especially as the film implies that pretty much everyone else he was racing was doping too, and on the same dope. Nobody explains why EPO should have been more effective for Armstrong than for his rivals.
4. If I were casting a film about Lance Armstrong I probably wouldn’t ask Frankie Andreu for advice, as happens in the film. There’s a running gag (of sorts) throughout The Program that they’re going to make a film of Armstrong’s life. Various names for the lead role are discussed on the team bus – some of whom were mentioned as possible Lance-a-likes for other proposed pics.
At which point the Frankie Andreu character suggests that Jake Gyllenhall is a natural for Lance because he rode a bike in the opening scene of Donnie Darko. That’s about as insightful as this film gets.
To be fair, Ben Foster’s on screen Armstrong isn’t too impressed with Andreu’s reasoning either – although it’s worth noting that in real life, Gyllenhall hooked up with the then-retired Armstrong at the 2006 Tour amid rumours he would star in a movie based on his autobiography, It’s Not About The Bike.
5. Floyd Landis… he’s a strange one. Well, in this film he is anyway. When we first meet the man who will be Armstrong’s nemesis he comes across in the not unfair assessment of the bloke sitting next to me at the screening as being “slightly brain damaged”. However, once he gets to US Postal he has a lucid episode lasting a number of years which seems to coincide with his use of EPO, HGH, testosterone and whatever else was in the team medicine cabinet.
His 2006 Tour trauma – he won, but was stripped of the title after failing an anti-doping control – precipitates a relapse which culminates with Floyd ’fessing up to USADA boss Travis Tygart. Cold turkey? Perhaps. Or perhaps the flashback to a younger Floyd helmetless and lightless crashing his mountain bike in the dark explains all?
It’s a shame because Landis comes across as potentially as interesting a figure as Armstrong. But the movie, after all, is about Armstrong, with the screenwriter possibly hampered in developing thoughtful character studies of other protagonists as much as they might like. Perhaps Frears and co could have done some more research and talked to Landis? Or maybe they did… and he really is like that. Which brings us onto…
6. Ben Foster’s Lance Armstrong totally dominates the picture, which I suppose is a fair reflection of what Armstrong did in real life and to some extent still does. The actor perfectly catches the manner of the man and, at moments, the Armstrong 'look' too. That said, I didn’t really detect the post-cancer change in shape – which was very noticeable in real life.
8. Nobody comes out of this very well. Frears holds up a mirror to reality and the mirror shows Armstrong to be a charming, manipulative bully – which most of us already knew anyway; the film hints at but never really explores the possibility that the Armstrong behind the mask is a far more complex and vulnerable character.
Walsh – who should be the hero – comes across as a rather sanctimonious smudgins with a possible deep-seated grudge at having lost a bet to Armstrong – depicted in an early scene – that led to the journalist having to shave off his beard.
Lance’s team mates, meanwhile, are portrayed as not the sharpest tools in the box. The two surprises are US Postal team manager, Johan Bruyneel, and Armstrong’s trainer, Dr Michele Ferrari – both of whom come across as surprisingly likeable.
The French actor Guillaume Canet as Ferrari steals every scene he is in, and even comes across as a quasi-Bond villain at times – his line, as he pops a syringe, “Now we have learnt to fly” is reminiscent of nothing so much, even in its delivery, as Goldfinger’s reply, “No, Mr Bond … I expect you to die!”
Back to those 1990s tracksuits for a moment though - watching the Ferrari character, I couldn't help but be reminded of Ali G ... and with Sacha Baron Cohen going on to global fame as wannabe Kazakh ambassador Borat, and Armstrong making his ill-judged comeback with Kazakh team Astana, there must be a parable there somewhere. Well, maybe.
9. You might draw a different conclusion to The Program, depending on what your starting point is on Armstrong. It seemed to me that in film’s version of reality Armstrong was only a few ‘if-onlys’ away from keeping all those yellow jerseys, and still being a hero today.
If only he’d listened to Johan and not come back; if only he’d been more discreet in what he said in front of people not in his inner circle; and if only he’d been a bit nicer to Floyd on the phone. Forcing David Walsh to shave his beard off was probably a tactical error too, although I notice that Walsh never grew it back.
The Program is in UK cinemas from this Friday, 16 October.
road.cc verdict: Well-told story of rise & fall of Lance Armstrong but if you want insight into what really makes him tick you'll be disappointed.
road.cc's founder and first editor, nowadays to be found riding a spreadsheet. Tony's journey in cycling media started in 1997 as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - finally handing on the reins in 2021 to Jack Sexty. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes, though he'd like to own a carbon bike one day.