October 3, 2015 1 Comment
I don’t care about the Tour de France. I’ve never watched it, nor do I really care about cycling. It’s fine that other people like it, but it’s just not for me. But I’m really interested in the Lance Armstrong story. It’s a fascinating tale and instigates great debates about doping, athleticism, myth-making, and society’s desire to tear public figures down. For myself, revealing Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France seven times always makes me think of one question: what did we accomplish?
The Program doesn’t answer these questions, but instead is a thrilling fact-based account about those seven tours with dramatizations of the doping that took place behind the scenes. Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) is a young American cyclist tackling the Tour de France for the first time. He’s doing an interview with David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) while playing foosball. Walsh likes the young athlete, but privately tells his colleagues that the American will never be a true contender. In that first Tour, Walsh is right; Armstrong doesn’t even come close. And then Armstrong is diagnosed with cancer, and it looks like his career is over. But he returns to the Tour against all odds – a true Cinderella story – and wins it. Armstrong’s suddenly a true contender, but Walsh, unlike his colleagues, doesn’t believe everything is above board. He can’t be wrong.
Obviously, Walsh wasn’t wrong. Lance was doping. And the scenes of the “program” are captivating as a whole team of cyclists lounge in their tour bus with needles in their veins and IV bags above their heads. There’s a great scene where a drug inspector makes a surprise visit to the U.S. Postal team’s trailer to do a drug test on Armstrong, and Lance scrambles to inject himself with enough water to dilute the drugs running through his bloodstream. But here’s the rub: it seems like everyone in the Tour was doping. That first Tour that Lance did horribly in? Yep, doping scandal. Walsh laments that he wants to watch athletes race up a mountain, not chemists. So why isn’t that the bigger story – that doping is rampant and the systems in place to keep the sport fair are horribly ineffective? Frankly, taking down “athletes” (quotations, cuz doping) just seems like whack-a-mole at this point.
The film does a good job of being the Coles Notes of the scandal. It hits the major beats – well-shot racing sequences, scenes of Lance with his charity and the extension of his lies into the inspirational speeches he tells to crowds of cancer survivors, his scorched earth strategy of silencing opponents through numerous lawsuits, and endorsements from major companies as his star rises. Admittedly, the film is pretty much a dramatization of the documentary The Armstrong Lie that just came out two years ago. But what’s the problem with that? The Armstrong Lie is an incredible film, and The Program is a great one as well.
Ben Foster captures the look an essence of Armstrong to an eerie degree. He’s contained, precise, and calculating. But there’s a scene near the end of the film when the facade breaks down and Foster does some incredible work. Holding back tears, and through gritted teeth, he pleads with the board that competition is his life while they strip him of his titles. It’s a powerful moment. From the man who had everything, to a instant disgrace.
Sidenote: Isn’t there something similar about Walsh’s dogged pursuit of the truth and Armstrong’s dogged pursuit of victory? And don’t journalists sometimes use dirty tactics to get an edge over other journalists? I’m not saying that Walsh did this, but I’m just thinking about the advantages in different areas of life that we may exploit unfairly but don’t suffer repercussions from. It all depends on the game though, right?