Any film about Lance Armstrong is faced with a couple of difficult questions. On the one hand, how you strike the right balance between a sports biopic and an expose of his use of performance-enhancing drugs – “the most sophisticated and professionalised doping program in recent sporting history” – without seeming too sympathetic or too unsympathetic? On the other hand, how can a film possibly hope to rival the suspense and revelations of Armstrong’s television interviews with Oprah? In The Program, Stephen Frears and screenwriter John Hodge strike that balance perfectly, presenting us with a film that is emphatically not designed to invalidate Armstrong’s career – and in some ways rehabilitates his reputation – but without ever shying away from the darkest moments in his doping conspiracy as well. Instead of a film that glorifies or demonises Armstrong, we’re presented with a largely procedural approach that is haunted by the – arguably more disturbing – possibility that he may simply have been a good cyclist, rather than a great cyclist. In some ways, that makes for quite an intense viewing experience, but Frears also uses comedy quite artfully as well, since it was during the period that the film depicts that the possibility of an Armstrong biopic was originally raised. By having Armstrong (Ben Foster) discuss the way he might be represented on the big screen with his colleagues – and especially with fellow cyclist Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) – Frears artfully calibrates his own film against the biopic that all of us thought we would certainly see following the release of It’s Not About The Bike. With that other, earlier film that never came to pass always lingering somewhere in the background, The Program finally feels more like a way of contouring the Oprah interviews rather than competing with them, making for one of the most finely modulated sports films that I have seen in some time.
Critical to that process is the way in which The Program – as the double meaning of the title might suggest – focuses almost exclusively on Armstrong’s recovery from cancer over its first act. To some extent, this isn’t such a surprising decision, since it was – once upon a time – the main hook in Armstrong’s biography, and would certainly have been the prime focus of any biopic released in the mid-00s. At a more general level, it’s a compelling and intense story on its own terms, and lends itself well to the kinds of televisual melodrama that Frears brings to the opening scenes, which in turn makes this feel like a release that would fare just as well on Apple TV or straight-to-release formats as in the traditional cinematic venue within which I originally saw it. What does make The Program so surprising, however, is how seamlessly it draws a connection between Armstrong’s cancer recovery and his subsequent experimentations with performance enhancing drugs – the two parts of the story that you’d think any biopic would want to keep somewhat separate – as doping is almost presented as part and parcel of his recovery, especially since one of the main ingredients in performance enhancing drugs is testosterone and Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
During this initial part of the process Armstrong is presented as fairly passive, with his sports doctor taking the reins quite seamlessly from his oncologist and chemotherapy giving way to drug supplements so subliminally that you barely even notice that it’s happened, especially since chemo has already – inadvertently – brought him much closer to the “ideal” cyclist physique that doctor originally prescribed. By the end of the first act, doping has been all but subsumed into a wider transformation that is – somewhat – out of Armstrong’s hands, which often gives the biopic the atmosphere of an origins story, especially since origin stories often focus on regular people taking on a synthetic or posthuman identity. As much as the iconography of cancer and chemotherapy might pervade all the doping sequences, it also feels like a source of strength for Armstrong as well, especially because – like so many superheroes – he is presented as having very little intrinsic character, with the result that the film is largely driven by this continuity between chemotherapy and doping rather than any regular kind of character development, along with the wider sense that building his cycling career by whatever means possible is just another facet of Armstrong’s broader survival strategy.
It’s at these moments, in particular, that Ben Foster really shines – when an actor resembles their subject so closely it’s easy for them to simply coast on that resemblance, but Foster also manages to nail Armstrong’s impermeable, impenetrable arrogance – you can almost feel the testosterone accumulate as the doping accelerates – while also managing to suggest that even his most arrogant moments were a defense mechanism against the traumatic vulnerability of the opening chemotherapy sequences. Even at his most Machiavellian, Foster’s Armstrong never quite loses that vulnerability, while even his supreme orchestration, coordination and fabrication of blood tests never feels too far away from the panoply of medical equipment that surrounded and debilitated him during his chemotherapy, making for an incredibly dignified and respectful film about cancer as much as an expose of a cycling scandal. In that sense, The Program manages to remain respectful to Armstrong’s memoir – and to in some sense double as an adaptation of that memoir, the blockbuster that would have come out a decade ago – without shying away from him as a criminal threat either. Nevertheless, even as his behaviour escalates – distributing drugs, silencing people – and starts to segue into something like organised crime, the film seems prescient that these are the kinds of decisions and trajectories embarked upon under extraordinary circumstances, without ever glorifying or excusing Armstrong in the process either.
That’s a delicate balance to maintain, and to the film’s credit it manages to maintain it right until the end, offering us a version of Armstrong that is perhaps more compromising to his particular self-regard than any straightforward glorification or vilification. In media depictions of Armstrong he has nearly always been imbued with either a saintly or demonic agency, fully and legitimately in control of his physique and performance, or fully and illegally in control of his physique and performance. In The Program, however, Armstrong is emphatically decentred from his own body from the moment he commences chemotherapy or – depending on how you read it – from the moment he decides to take performance-enhancing drugs, although even this “decision” is robbed of any great agency, with Armstrong only contemplating doping after hearing something furtively mumbled to his doctor in the midst a chemotherapy haze during the very nadir of his treatment. This lack of agency and the way it is modulated is what gives the film so much of its complexity, since while it never seeks to excuse or justify Armstrong it also captures the strangeness of being pushed to the side of one’s own life – or the side of one’s own body – in the midst of extreme and debilitating illness, a turn that seem to move the film beyond straightforward ethical allegations or pronouncements and forms quite a welcome counterpoint to the endless dissections and analyses of Armstrong’s character in the international media.
For that reason, the investigative sequences turn out to be the least engaging moments in the film, even if they offer Chris O’Dowd one of his best performances as David Walsh, the Sunday Times sports journalist who originally broke the story. Devoid of the dopey hangdog vibe that has become part and parcel of his screen persona since Bridesmaids, O’Dowd offers a clinical and compelling performance, playing his part with a calm and understated drive that seems consciously designed to ensure that the sports journalism angle is shorn of the kind of residual macho heroics that in another film might have consolidated Armstrong’s own oppositional heroics in turn. As it stands, however, the somewhat underplayed procedural angle dovetails with the general posthuman vibe – and the sense of Armstrong himself being somewhat dissociated from his own body – to create a film that ultimately begs the question of the role of performance enhancing drugs more generally within the wider international sporting arena.
While doping is obviously a health issue in sports, there is something about the way it is presented here – doped vs. “real” talent – that makes the whole debate about it feel somewhat old-fashioned and as inadequate to the Armstrong situation as the print media of the Sunday Times was inadequate to the informal and digital communicative networks within which Armstrong’s doping empire managed to remain undetected for so long. The role of doping here feels particularly questionable in that cycling itself is already in some sense an augmented sport – after all, if you can buy a better bike, why can’t you supplement yourself in other ways as well? Certainly, as the film presents it, Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs simply converged him further with his bike, to the point where it almost feels as if he is trying to do away with his unhealthy dependence on the bike altogether – he ends up selling bikes to buy drugs – and instead augment his actual body instead. While Walsh may object to “going up a mountain to watch chemists compete,” the film also manages to slyly suggest that long-distance cycling is in some sense going up a mountain to watch cycling engineers complete – especially since so many of the Tour de France sequences focus on the mountain passes – and that it is the biking manufacturers, rather than the pharmaceutical industry, that is possibly pulling the biggest scam on the sport as a whole. It’s a brilliant piece of casting, then, that sees Plemons as Landis, who was one of Armstrong’s key collaborators in the doping business as well as a professional colleague. Throughout the film, Landis supplements his doping habits with other kinds of highs and addictive experiences – at one point he drinks as many coffees as possible before a cycle – and while these are all technically legal, Plemons’ career-making performance as “Meth Damon” in Breaking Bad slyly and comically breaks down the distinction between licit and illicit supplements, not least because Landis is always telling Armstrong that Matt Damon would be an ideal candidate to play him if the blockbuster biopic ever gets made.
While that gradual dissociation of Armstrong works well to draw out some of the deeper issues surrounding performance-enhancing drugs, it’s even more impressive in the way in which it allows Frears to capture the pace and momentum of long-distance cycling, which is an inherently difficult and decentred sport to visualise over the course of a feature-length film. In many ways, authentically “watching” long-distance cycling is a televisual rather than cinematic experience, and probably closer to reality television than any other sports coverage, requiring days and days of incidental, ambient and offhand spectatorship to get a sense of the twenty-four hour cycle of the event as a whole. As an event that is almost exclusively watched on television, the Tour de France, in particular, both is and isn’t a spectator sport – or is somewhat decentred from any one spectacle – a process that Frears tries to capture in montage sequences that collapse different kinds of footage and relay successive Tours through a variety of different screens and platforms, while underpinning it all with a pervasive melodramatic telemovie vibe, as if to suggest that even across new media long-distance cycling still plays as an inherently or at least residually televisual event.
For all those innovations, however, I found The Program more memorable when it focused more specifically on different components of the Tour, especially when Frears seized upon the major mountain ascents as a microcosm of the race as a whole. Apparently these are the hardest parts of the event, as well the sections that most distinguish long-distance from short-distance cyclists, which of course means they were also the primary motivations for Armstrong’s doping in the first place, as well as the main venue for his new superhuman powers. In fact, as the film presents it, long-distance cycling is almost like a distant relative of mountain-climbing, especially in Armstrong’s hands, since his ultimate aim – and the end point of his doping schedule – is to ascend as quickly as he descends, to the point where he actually has to put on the brakes on the way up. It’s no coincidence, then, that it tends to be the mountain sequences that insist on attributing a certain arrogant, steely sublimity to Armstrong even after all that has happened, an “enhanced self-awareness” that makes you wonder whether he could have actually done it without the doping – and it’s that possibility that finally makes this feel such a generous and reparative film, even if it is unflinching about focusing on the darker moments in Armstrong’s career as well.