Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Program: Lance Armstrong Lies, Cheats, and Dopes his Way to the Top

From 1986 to 1998 Greg LeMond was the only American to have won the Tour de France. He became the only American Tour winner once more in 2012 when Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis were stripped of their victories. For years, Armstrong’s lies and intimidation had covered up his extensive use of performance enhancing drugs (with the timely help of Britain’s stifling libel laws), but the truth eventually came out. Armstrong’s crimes and hypocrisy are portrayed with scathing honesty and dramatic gusto in Stephen Frears’ The Program (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select cities.

Notorious sports doctor Michele Ferrari initially declined to work with Armstrong because he has the wrong body type. Ironically, cancer would re-shape the cyclist to fit Ferrari’s mold. However, Armstrong had already been self-administering EPO before the onset of his illness (this point would have tremendous legal ramifications later). Of course, when the aptly named Ferrari started secretly advising Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team, the doping became more sophisticated and systemic. Everyone on the team was implicated, most definitely including their team director Johan Bruyneel. Yet, there is no question Armstrong was the architect and the chief enforcer.

John Hodge’s screenplay, based on the book and reporting of Irish sports journalist David Walsh pulls no punches. It makes it clear just how suspicious Armstrong sudden power was given his past performance, as well as the determination of the Cycling Union and the press corps to ignore all the tell-tale signs. There is no question Walsh is the hero of this story and Armstrong is the villain, but the ways in which the disgraced champion tried to isolate and bully his journalist critic into silence are still pretty galling. The film treatment is not quite as damning as Alex Holmes’ expose, Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing, but it is not due to a lack of trying.

Ben Foster is a jolly good physical likeness of Armstrong, but the way he relishes the cyclist’s Machiavellian treachery is a perverse joy to behold. You can practically see him twisting a phantom handlebar moustache (presumably, a real one would increase wind resistance). However, he still manages to pull off humanizing moments, as when Armstrong visits frightfully young and understandably frightened cancer patients.

Guillaume Canet perfectly complements Foster’s sociopathic Armstrong, oozing Euro sleaze as the serpent-like Ferrari. Chris O’Dowd also brings real heft and dimension to the principled Walsh. Although his screen time is limited, Dustin Hoffman gives the film a major energy boost as Armstrong’s legal nemesis, Bob Hamman. While he broods dourly enough as Landis, the sweaty and hulking Jesse Plemons does not look like much of a cyclist.

First and foremost, The Program will convince any holdouts in the audience Armstrong really was and still is a lying-dog cheater. It might also lead some of our British friends to conclude their overly restrictive libel laws are not consistent with a free press. When an unethical charlatan like Armstrong can use it to choke off a legitimate inquiry into wrongdoing, something is badly amiss. Regardless, Frears and Foster create a wickedly entertaining portrait of an epic egomaniac and the wreckage he left in his wake. It is not exactly subtle, but it is massively watchable. Recommended for fans of in-your-face, ripped-from-the-headlines drama, The Program opens this Friday (3/18) in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Town Center.