Forget cricket, football, or any other sport (I’ve never even been to a sports game), my family’s sort of choice is cycling. My dad is an ex-pro cyclist, from the days before endorsements and lavish contracts made being an athlete a career. My childhood is littered with memories of weekend races and when each July would roll around and our whole house would be glued to the TV to find out who would ride down the Champs-Élysées and stand on top of the podium to take out the title for that year. In amongst those though are memories of the seven times Lance Armstrong stood atop that podium. Even as a kid, I knew that was impossible.
The Program isn’t made for someone like me, who has spent most of their life hearing every eventually corroborated rumour about Lance Armstrong, and can pick each plot movement before it happens. It’s not for someone who can tell the exact moment where Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former teammate of Armstrong’s, will witness Armstrong admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs; or when each new main player, including Floyd Landis (played by Jesse Plemons) and Michele Ferrari (Guillame Canet), will appear.
But regardless of one’s knowledge about Armstrong and the commendably committed performances from Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd and company; The Program is an uninteresting watch. Filmed nearly two years ago while Philomena, Frears’s previous film, was making the Oscar rounds and seemingly getting lost in a shuffle of not quite fitting the ‘Oscar film’ framework, yet not being experimental enough to be arthouse, it has all the flavour of a hastily-assembled and as soon forgotten project. John Hodge’s screenplay has all the flair of a Wikipedia article, completely uninspired and empty of deeper insight beyond a ripped-from-the-headlines mentality, even introducing each character with all the function of a subheading. Frears’s direction is similarly uninspiring, doing nothing to interpret the events on the page.
Perhaps its because the Armstrong story is now old news, now completely eptied of anything that could be compelling. There was a very good Alex Gibney documentary made about it two years ago, that spanned the very same material here with a deeper insight into the character of Armstrong, and was ultimately a much tighter and compelling film, despite having a lengthier runtime. Armstrong is a character that calls for a deep level of psychological analysis. His motivations, his upbringing, why he pursued obsolescence with such doggedness. He managed to lie for 15 years, despite the rumours swirling around him. He changed an the entire game, making cycling not just a European sport, but one with all the financial backing of top NFL teams (in one scene, O’Dowd’s David Walsh laments the loss of the heart of the sport, saying that Armstrong is “killing it”, a sentiment shared by many veterans of the sport at the time). He started an entire dynasty of the sport, that has since ended with the entrance of new talents like Alberto Contador, riders who look to make the sport less the arms race that it once was, to a much more classical vision, of sportsmanship and natural strength. These things, questions of the very inner character of Armstrong, are what would make a much different, much better, and more essential film even for those who are well-versed in the facts of the story. But The Program feels nonetheless like an already-ran race.