Director - Stephen Frears
Cast - Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman
Rating - 2.5/5
He was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness; he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case…
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Robert Ford got too close. His perception, glazed with the greasy pulp of novels and theatre productions promised him a hero. What he saw before him, as he fired the gun that would make him famous, was a man. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is now regarded as an overlooked classic. The reason I invoke it so early in this review is because there is no other film as wise about the dangers of celebrity, and how, sometimes, it is best to observe our heroes from afar, than it.
Lance Armstrong’s was a true toppling of a titan. Even as a casual observer, his fall from grace had an undeniable majesty to it. It was as if Moses’ parting of the Red Sea was suddenly revealed to be an elaborate smoke and mirrors trick. I felt the true magnitude of this event years later, only a few days ago, when Maria Sharapova called that impromptu press conference.
Stephen Frears’ The Program, about the rise, and dope-induced fall of Lance Armstrong is a frustrating picture. When it succeeds, it glides like its protagonist (antagonist?) down an Alpine slope. But when it fails, it resembles a pile up 500 metres from the finish line. Frears sets it up, in true sports movie fashion, as a battle between David and Goliath. On one side there is a Nixonian Armstrong, portrayed here as a one-dimensional Bond villain, and on the other, is David Walsh, the Irish journalist whose Woodward and Bernstein-like resilience brought him down.
It’s still early days when flashy titles introduce us to these two adversaries. From the very first time that Armstrong wins the Tour de France, flouting Walsh’s expert predictions, the cat and mouse game is on. Armstrong’s famously inspirational story of cancer survivor turned champ is retold, but with the luxury of hindsight. And that is partly where the movie goes off track. It seems as if Frears, the fantastic filmmaker behind The Queen and Philomena, is determined to show Armstrong as harshly as possible. Were it not for Ben Foster’s commanding performance, there would have been no saving this film.
It could be argued that the film is told through the eyes of David Walsh (played with perhaps a little too much emphatic passion by Chris O’Dowd), in which case the moustache-twirling portrayal of Armstrong makes sense. To Walsh, every yellow jersey Armstrong won must’ve felt like a Donald Trump victory to a Hollywood liberal. But most people didn’t believe him. The movie would have been in better shape had it not so smugly taken the ‘I told you so’ route, and offered, instead a levelheaded exploration into why he did what he did.
If this film is to be believed, and that is what it really wants, Armstrong was the one and only maker of his destiny. He was not influenced by anyone in his quest for legend status. Doctor Michele Ferrari, indicted and banned for his role in the scandal, and played like a ‘50s mad scientist here by Guillaume Canet, was not to blame according to this film. To Armstrong, he was simply a drug dealer, a means to an end.
Armstrong had the drive of a true sportsman, but it’s like they say: A knife in the hands of a murderer is not like a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon. Lance Armstrong, as it turns out, was both a clinical cheat, and a ruthless monster, obliterating everyone in his path, swallowing them whole as he became more God-like with every Tour.
But this movie, despite being staunchly non-conformist, ends up, like Armstrong, a disappointing let down. What stops it in its tracks is the fact that we already know every detail about this case that there is to know. He is a public figure who made it a point to install himself in the consciousness of the world and there is very little Frears could have done with this story to make it fresh.
He could’ve chosen to make it a straightforward biopic, a sports movie with a twist ending, a film about honest journalism, or even a dramatic character study of an obviously complicated man. What Frears did instead, was to make it all those things, never fully exploring one facet of the story, and consequently, producing a film that can’t help but feel like a tonally and stylistically convoluted misfire.
But, luckily, there already exists a seminal Lance Armstrong movie. It is a documentary called The Armstrong Lie directed by Alex Gibney. It is an intimate peek inside the mind of a man who undoubtedly cheated, betrayed his legions of fans, not to mention the sport he loved. It is not, as the blandly titled The Program would have you believe, about a lunatic drug addict with a God complex. The fall, in The Armstrong Lie, instead of resembling the horrific crumbling of the twin towers on 9/11, comes across as the graceful fading away of a shooting star. There is a dignity to that film, a nuanced subtlety that The Program unfortunately doesn’t have.
Watch The Armstrong Lie trailer:
In a better movie, Foster would’ve been an Oscar contender.
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan