Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Program

Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O' Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Here's a first. A biopic in which hardly a single aspect of the subject's personal life is addressed. But when your subject is embattled cyclist Lance Armstrong, you'd figure it makes sense that normal just don't apply, as they certainly didn't for him. As if the pre-release promotional art featuring Armstrong and giant syringe with the tagline, "Winning Was In His Blood," wasn't enough of a hint that Stephen Frears' The Program would be heavily weighed toward exposing the doping scandal that toppled an American sports icon, there are many instances in the film where the person himself fades into the background as performance enhancing drugs take center stage.

A quick glimpse at the list of Tour de France winners immediately reveals the seven blank spaces where Armstrong's name was, drawing so much sensationalistic attention to itself you start wondering if that punishment accomplished the opposite of its goal. Second only to O.J. Simpson as the most disgraced sports figure of recent times, you almost get the impression from watching this film that he'd bask in any kind of attention he could get. And that's why it's so cruelly ironic that hardly anyone knows this Lance Armstrong film exists or was even released, albeit briefly on V.O.D and theatrically earlier in the year.

Frears seems to present an argument that the man himself never really existed before that scandal and hasn't existed on any level since. It's tough to tell how much of that approach is deliberate or the result of crucial editing room cuts that excised what could have been deeper insights into his personality. Then again, what personality? He wanted to win at all costs and that's it. This a cold, clinical framing of events that's adequate enough because the detached style feels so oddly appropriate in this case. And they got the best actor they possibly could in both physical resemblance and temperment to play Lance, emotionlessly reflecting back at us our worst suspicions. It should be seen for that performance, which probably didn't get a chance to go to the places it otherwise would in a traditional sports biopic. In a way, that may have been for the best. Any portrayal of Armstrong as something other than a blank slate of deception would likely ring false.

Based on Sunday Times sports writer David Walsh's 2012 book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the film covers Walsh's (Chris O' Dowd) struggle to expose Armstrong's (Ben Foster) use of banned substances in gaining an illegal advantage that led to his seven Tour de France wins. In tracing a link between the cyclist and notoriously controversial Italian Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), Walsh opens the floodgates in eventually revealing the Armstrong-led US Postal Team's involvement in the most sophisticated doping program in professional sports.

While serving as a role model and ambassador for cancer survivors worldwide with his Livestrong foundation, Armstrong was deceiving not only the public, but the UCI governing body, which brushed off Walsh's valid claim while turning a blind eye to obvious signs of cheating in order to bolster cycling's bottomline. And in expecting teammates like promising newcomer Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) to risk their careers for the sake of protecting his reputation, Armstrong finally meets his match in the determined Walsh, who's gathering the necessary witnesses and evidence to finally let the world know their icon is a fraud.

The details absent from the film might be more revealing of its approach than what is. There's no information on Armstrong's childhood, what spurned his decision to become a cyclist or the collapse of his marriage. Screenwriter John Hodge seems to be working on the assumption it doesn't matter, and sadly, he's probably right. Armstrong's life as a public figure really began in the early 90's and the most damning information provided is he really wasn't all that good of a cyclist at the start of his career, making Walsh's eventual claims sting that much more. An early, cordial interview between the two is a highlight, setting the table for what follows.

The public and media's refusal to see what was right in front of their faces the entire time spoke to their desire to have a hero, and according to the film, no one knew that more than Armstrong himself.  In what pretty much plays as a synchronized summary of events that occasionally comes off as a full-on reenactment, the most controversial revelation is that his 1996 cancer diagnosis created a monster. The very idea he came so close to dying sickened him more than any medical treatment could, and it's here where Ben Foster's compulsively intense performance (he actually took PED's for the role) is off to the races, hooked to wires and wearing a Vader-esque oxygen mask to begin his evolution into this racing cyborg.

Bringing himself back from the dead to become the best cyclist in the world was how the media framed the story, and Foster plays with this righteous indignation that no one or no thing stops Lance Armstrong. Therein lies the birth of "the program" as Dr. Ferrari transforms the cyclist (and eventually his teammates) into his personal lab rats and we find out exactly how Lance evaded and manipulated the drug testing. One of the recurring mantras is his repeating, "I have never tested positive," as if in an effort to convince himself. Foster's delivery of it and his acting choices when visiting juvenile cancer patients give off just the subtlest pangs of guilt and briefest glimpse of what vaguely resembles a conscience.  How he and his agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace) raised his profile and reputation with philanthropic work and conned SCA Promotions founder Bob Hamman (Dustin Hoffman) out of millions are almost minor indiscretions compared to how he screwed over Floyd Landis in the film's most compelling sub-plot.

Played really well by Jesse Plemons as the cycling prodigy from Amish country, Pennsylvania, Landis puts it all on the line for Lance, only to discover what happens to people Armstrong no longer has use for. It's the final piece of the puzzle for Dave Walsh and when the walls start closing in on Armstrong, Foster plays him even angrier, more entitled and arrogant, as if anyone could have the nerve to expose his lies. With an untouchable attitude, the thought that all this could come crashing down doesn't even occur to this competitive athlete Foster portrays as a delusional narcissist.

As big a stretch as it seems, anyone who saw the recent O.J.: Made in America documentary could make reasonable comparisons, obviously not to the severity of crimes, but to their subject's unwavering sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness. The argument that drug abuse was so rampant in cycling that Armstrong was vilified merely for obtaining the best results and perfecting a system isn't presented in a film where a syringe is credited with all the work. Ultimately though, it was the deceit that unraveled him.

This isn't one of Frears' stronger efforts visually, as some location shots look downright awful due to budgetary constraints and it's probably too short, not nearly expansive enough in depth for the issue covered. Presented chronologically, it moves too fast to ever really get a strong sense of time, place, or the public's reaction. This is a Cliffs Notes version of what happened, so while it's kind of dramatically flat in that respect, much of what's on screen works largely due to Foster's performance.

There's a scene at the peak of Armstrong's career where his teammates are speculating which actor could play him in a feature film version of his life. And yes, as strange as it now seems, Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal were both once attached to what would have been at the time a far different movie. An inspirational one. Instead he gets Foster, but it's far from a downgrade as Armstrong's indiscretions send it down a darker alley this actor proves even more equipped to handle. Whatever its issues, The Program is still a better film than many feel the person deserves.

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