The Program

An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong's performances during the Tour de France victories are fueled by banned substances. With this conviction, he starts hunting for evidence that will expose Armstrong.


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  • ★★★½ review by TajLV on Letterboxd

    Part of my 5 Directors x 5 Unseen Films (16) challenge.

    I didn't really follow the exploits of cyclist Lance Armstrong during the string of Tour de France victories that made him a household name in 1999-2005. It just wasn't my sport. But when he announced his return to professional cycling in 2008, after three years in quasi retirement, I suddenly took interest. Everyone loves a good comeback story.

    I watched the 2009 Tour with some intensity, as Armstrong, who had broken his collarbone six months earlier, and his Team Astana Pro, newly formed in 2007, dominated the competition. The comeback kid finished third overall -- quite a feat, all considered. The following year, RadioShack agreed to sponsor a new team led by Armstrong, and they won the French competition, even with their captain finishing 23rd overall in his final Le Tour appearance.

    I was not entirely oblivious to the doping allegations that had been made against Armstrong, but I didn't take them too seriously. He was hated by many for his previous dominance of the sport. Folks love to tear down icons almost as much as they enjoy creating them. I didn't follow the law suits, but I did know he was eventually stripped of his Tour de France honors and became a pariah in the world of sports. But to better understand the real life drama, I wanted to see this biopic from director Stephen Frears, based upon Irish journalist David Walsh's 2012 book entitled "Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong."

    The opening credits are underpinned by some archival cycling footage and quotes about "desire" being the competitive edge. Then we see Armstrong (Ben Foster) playing foosball with Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) on the eve of the rider's very first Tour de France in 1993. Initially, Walsh liked him. He figured him to be an excellent "day racer," but without the stamina to compete well in the grueling three-week event.

    If we can believe this, Armstrong quickly learned that blood doping and performance enhancing hormones like erythropoietin (EPO) were giving some riders and teams an unfair advantage. He reasoned that the playing field could be leveled only if he and and the rest of Team Motorola had access to the same aids.

    Armstrong approaches Italian physician and cycling coach Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) to put him on the same "program" as the best European riders, but gets told he's not the right "body shape" -- too much bulk muscle. He then talks his teammates into scoring some EPO at a Swiss pharmacy, where it can be bought OTC without prescription. Soon after, Armstrong wins his first Tour stage. So begins the cheating that would lead to so much acclaim and ridicule in the two decades to follow.

    But before his rise to cycling stardom came his diagnosis for potentially fatal metastatic testicular cancer in 1996. Following treatment, he concentrated all of his efforts on recovery, including becoming more lean in order to train with Dr. Ferrari. Eventually returning to form, Armstrong earned a place on the US Postal/Discovery Team in 1998. The following year, he got his first Le Tour victory, winning four of the 20 stages.

    Frears doesn't neglect Armstrong's philanthropy, centered upon his cancer awareness and support foundation started in 1997. We also see the cyclist's marriage to Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward) in 1998. On the other hand, Frears doesn't turn a blind eye to steroid use among European cyclists or to the nonchalant attitude Americans in general took toward what is arguably France's national sport. We also learn of Armstrong's goal of riding for the U.S. in the 1998 Olympics and how that hope was dashed.

    But more important from a storytelling point of view is Walsh's early suspicion of doping. Armstrong's victories just weren't justified by his past performances. Walsh speculates that there is a conspiracy of silence among the racers, perhaps because they are all involved, or maybe just because they are afraid of killing the golden goose of sponsorships, fandom and media attention.

    The "Tour de Lance" gains such momentum that nobody will listen to Walsh, least of all his editor, who demands real evidence. Not even the arrest of Ferrari for shady financial dealings was sufficient. And then in 2002 a hot-shot mountain specialist named Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) joins the U.S. Postal Team. Although he was raised as a Mennonite, he gets with "the program" like everyone else.

    Walsh's intuition and journalistic instinct lead him to some real sources, such as Betsy Andreu (Elaine Cassidy), who in 1996 heard Armstrong tell his oncologist he had used EPO, steroids, growth hormone and other drugs. Soon other whistle-blowers contact Walsh, including the Postal Team's former soigneur Emma O'Reilly (Laura Donnelly), who sometimes injected Armstrong, and fellow Motorola rider Stephen Swart (Sam Hoare), who was part of the drug-taking 1995 team.

    Then, Walsh gets a call from American risk insurer and professional bridge player Bob Hamman (Dustin Hoffman), who invites him to come to Dallas at his expense. Hamman reveals how he was approached by Team U.S. Postal sponsors to cover their bonus payments to Armstrong, should he keep winning La Tour -- some $10 million in potential liabilities. Hamman figures that if Armstrong really was guilty of doping, all the bonuses would be voided and he could recoup the expenditures, plus interest. The famous adage always applies: Follow the money!

    Of course, Armstrong fights back. He denies ever having taken performance-enhancing drugs. He sues Walsh and his newspaper. And he sues Hamman et al for his bonus payments. Not only does he win on all these fronts, he also claims the 2005 Tour de France Yellow Jersey. And he even manages to discredit Walsh's 2003 cycling exposé "L.A. Confidential."

    But we all know how this story ends. Landis wins the 2006 Tour de France, gets tested positive for high testosterone levels, is stripped of his championship and gets banned from the sport for two years. He later turns on Armstrong and their former coach Johan Bruyneel (Denis Ménochet), when Armstrong denies Landis a spot on his 2009 comeback team.

    It would take till 2012 for Armstrong to finally come clean. The black eye he gave cycling still hasn't healed. That's why I think Frears can be forgiven for shorting viewers on race footage and concentrating on the doping issue, even if that meant relegating Walsh to an outside observer role for much of the film. As docudramas go, it's only worth three stars, but I learned a lot here, so I've bumped it up a notch. Worth watching? Aye!

  • ★★★★ review by Dawson Joyce on Letterboxd

    Although at times it portrays its main subject as more villainous than he really is, The Program is a compelling drama featuring strong direction from Stephen Frears, excellent performances from Ben Foster and Chris O'Dowd, and a script that tells the true story it's based on in an engaging way, even if it doesn't explore the topic as much as it could have.

  • ★★★½ review by Waldo on Letterboxd

    Lance Armstrong, one of the greatest falls from grace ever in sports. Ben Foster plays him very well here. And Chris O'Dowd is also very good as the journalist that goes from respect and admiration to suspicion and dissapointment. Stephen Frears direction is spot on. I love the scene when Lance discusses who's gonna play him in his movie. Goes in deeper than I thought.

  • ★★★½ review by Jaume Vaquer on Letterboxd

    Mira que me importa un pito el ciclismo pero qué bien me lo he pasado con esta película.

    Y eso que aunque la venden como la investigación de un periodista, de eso tiene bien, bien poquito, porque todo es bicicleta y dopaje, esa "sorprendente" mezcla.

    Supongo que han jugado a su favor un reparto muy sólido, con un destacado Ben Foster como un Armstrong maquiavélico, magistral en el uso de su imagen pública, implacable, ambicioso pero también con sus momentos humanos.

    Y el guión, que contando una historia que transcurre durante varios años y con bastantes involucrados, es conciso y muy claro, sin perder el tiempo con detalles técnicos, innecesarios o que pueden ser redundantes.

    Mira que para mí el Tour de Francia es como decir casi un sinónimo de siesta, pero esta película ni por asomo.

  • ★★★★ review by Juan Bacaro on Letterboxd

    Aunque no es la mejor película de Stephen Frears, "The program" merecía colarse en algún rubro de los Óscar. Comenzando por la trepidante adecuación del libro de David Walsh que ha hecho John Hodge (quien ya también había adaptado temas de drogas en la "Trainspotting" de Irvine Welsh).

    Además, la película resulta divertida. Lance Armstrong, por momentos, parece un villano de Marvel.

    Y, como regalo, el soundtrack incluye dos de mis temas favoritos en la vida adulta: "Everybody knows" de Leonard Cohen y "No surprises" de Radiohead.

    A pesar que la cinta ha pasado desapercibida en festivales y prensa (y que no almacena las mejores críticas) es bastante entretenida. Y la mejor actuación de Ben Foster desde "The Messenger". Todo un Tour de F̶o̶r̶c̶e̶ France.

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