Stephen Frears’s subject, American Lance Armstrong, just happened to be a cyclist of world class repute, who brought disgrace on the entire sport by lying, covering up his own use of performance drugs and shamelessly duping the entire national team, its super rich backers and his fans the world over, into supporting him.
Documentarian Alex Gibney, who won the 2007 Academy Award for his investigation into U.S. government-sanctioned torture in Afghanistan with Taxi to The Dark Side, was also taken in. He had just completed his documentary The Road Back on Lance Armstrong’s unsuccessful 2009 comeback at the Tour de France, where Armstrong ended up in third place, when everything changed dramatically. Team mate Floyd Landis (played in the film by Jesse Plemons), gave an interview accusing Armstrong of doping which led to an investigation by the USADA and the downfall of Armstrong. Gibney’s documentary was rapidly revised, released in 2013 and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, its title changed to The Armstrong Lie.
The Program is a somewhat different portrayal, being an adaptation of David Walsh’s doping exposé in the Sunday Times, and fills in the spaces that facts cannot. It shows the in-fighting, bullying, growing megalomania of super athlete Armstrong (Ben Foster) scheming, believing his own deceptions and the ferocious competitiveness of sport. You don’t have to know anything about cycling to watch the film, though you pick up a huge amount of the complexities and challenges as you are sucked into this mega myth of super hero Armstrong who won the Tour De France seven times between 1999 and 2005 before being stripped of these titles in disgrace.
Foster, who plays Armstrong, really got into the part, training with professional cyclists for his role, spending many hours cycling on stretches of the Tour de France route, and remarkably underwent Armstrong’s doping programme under the supervision of a doctor. So when we see Foster as Armstrong in the gym, pumping his muscles and gigantic ego, ruthlessly squashing his rivals within the team, becoming more and more a possessed creature, consumed by the sickness of ambition, you know there is some element of firsthand experience underneath the entirely convincing portrayal.
Piece by piece, the film reveals his gradual descent. Unlike the cancer Armstrong endures at 21 and recovers from, he becomes infested by an obsession for success at any cost and his fall is inevitable and spectacular. Ever the showman, he grandstands his justifications in 2012 on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show.
Armstrong’s drug pusher is Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), an Italian physician seduced by the performance possibilities of chemistry. Chris O'Dowd plays Irish journalist David Walsh, who spent 13 years uncovering Armstrong's dependence on steroids. He is side-lined by the rest of the reporting pack after confronting Armstrong as other journalists side with the celebrity, star-struck and self-interested, despite knowing he’s suspect.
This film punches hard. It aims not only to air the facts but the emotions, the sheer testosterone-fueled naked ambition of super sports people and how sadly, the lust for worldwide recognition can corrupt decency and moral values along the cycling route. It is also about how we the public want to believe in our heroes, despite the damning evidence, and worse, how we need to. It is shocking how the world was so willingly taken in by Armstrong’s glaring self-promotion, his cheating and viciousness even though with hind sight there were clues all along as to what he really thought legitimate in sporting life:
‘We’re all the own authors of our own life story….. Go out there and write the best damn story you can.’
So is it our fault that he did?
The Program is showing at FACT from 20 October. Click here to book tickets.