Alex Gibney’s much lauded documentary The
With all that has now been revealed on the screen (computer, TV and cinema) and the page, it’s questionable if there is any particular need for Armstrong’s woeful story to be re-hashed in a feature – the film doesn’t really add anything to the ‘Armstrong discourse’. Is there anything present then to lead a reviewer to recommend seeing director Stephen Frears’ The Program (a reference to the scientifically devised, very through and intense doping regimen that Armstrong and many others readily embraced)? And the answer is yes, there is one element that makes it worth viewing: the central performance of Ben Foster (who now adds ‘egomaniacal cheating athlete’ to his rogue’s gallery of characters) as Armstrong.
The film opens at the time of Armstrong’s first ride in the Tour de France in 1995 (he won stage 18), after which he is told by physician Michele Ferrari that he simply doesn’t have the right metabolic ‘stuff’ (bio-chemistry) to be a great cyclist; what it takes to be a world beater has been determined by scientific analysis to be a relatively basic matter of the oxygen levels in one’s blood. As Armstrong also discovers, while he doesn’t naturally possess the extraordinarily high blood oxygenation levels needed to foster the incredible stamina required to win the Tour, this is not an insurmountable problem on the cusp of the 21st century.
As portrayed in the film, Armstrong had no scruples about doping in order to up his game to a just about unbeatable level. He wanted to win and accrue all the rewards that being a champion athlete brings, full stop. There is no attempt made, thankfully, to analyse the making of Armstrong’s ‘win at all costs’ and resulting ‘cheat at all costs’ psychology; it is simply presented as a given. Armstrong has admitted on the record that he took dope, and that he lied about it, but just how much dope he took, and how much lying he did about it, has not been discussed by Armstrong in exhaustive, painstaking detail, and one gets the sense he has no desire to ever do so. Foster’s Armstrong is calculated and cold-blooded, and even the courtship of and marriage to his first wife Kristin Richard is presented perfunctorily, like a rather formalised arrangement. Not even within this aspect of his life is Armstrong presented as warm or loving.
Frears spends little time showing any cycling after the film’s first act; perhaps it was felt that as all those races – thrilling as they were at the time – were contested by doped cheaters, there was no need to give the races any more than the briefest acknowledgement on screen. Allegations of doping dogged Armstrong from the beginning of his success, when he was suddenly, suspiciously transformed from a decent but not remarkable cyclist to a champion, and the painstaking means employed by his US Postal Service team to avoid detection is outlined in great detail.
The Program isn’t a film about sport; it’s a film about the lengths a man’s ego can drive him to to achieve success, ostensibly in any realm. First and foremost though, it’s the story of one very famous man’s ego; an ego that, and because it was just that much bigger than others’, took him to the very top of his profession but then ultimately destroyed all that it had helped him achieve.