A few months back, when two US presidential hopefuls were engaged in a war of words over their wives, one of them was asked by interviewer Anderson Cooper why he was behaving, well, let’s say, “unpresidential”. His response was, “Excuse me, I didn’t start it.” Putting aside who said that pearl of wisdom, the notion that two wrongs make a right, is not just infantile, it can also be quite dangerous.
Lance Armstrong might not see a problem with that philosophy though. He certainly didn’t back in 1994 when he decided that the only way to beat his doped up European bicycling competitors was to take performance enhancing drugs himself. What was he thinking? Everyone who had been following his career to that point knew he was an excellent one-day racer but he definitely wasn’t podium material when it came to the gruelling Tour de France. Prior to that point, the best he had ever done was to win the 8th stage in the 1993 Tour. Contributing to his poor chances going forward was the fact that in 1996 he underwent painful and debilitating treatments to rid his body of advanced testicular cancer. His doctors had given him less than a 50 percent chance of survival, yet there was Armstrong just over one year later powering up a French mountainside as if it was something he did every day. When he won the first of his seven Tour de France victories in 1999, analysts and competitors alike all knew he was doping but they couldn’t prove it. Armstrong, with the help of Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, had done what no professional cyclist had done before — he figured out how to cheat and not get caught.
THE PROGRAM is directed by Stephen Frears, who received an Oscar® nomination in 2006 for his film, THE QUEEN, and is based on the 2012 book, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”, by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh. The film follows Armstrong (Ben Foster, THE FINEST HOURS) from the time he makes the decision to win the Tour at all costs to his dispassionate admission of guilt on national television in 2013. In between, we see a man who would stop at nothing to cheat and ensure that his clean reputation remained intact. That was no small feat considering his team members all knew about the doping. They were doing it too, but there was an omerta, a term used by the Mafia to mean “code of silence”, in place and anyone who broke that code was not only out of Armstrong’s protective bubble, they were either bullied into silence or crushed by him with a hefty lawsuit. His loyal legion of fans, many of whom included members of the press, were always there to vigorously defend him.
The film shows the lengths that Armstrong, Ferrari (French actor, Guillaume Canet) and his team’s director, Johan Bruyneel (French actor, Denis Ménochet; INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), went to make him a racing legend. Even when he failed a drug test in 1999, Armstrong was able to convince the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) that the corticosteroid in his system was due to an approved cream he was using for saddle sores. The UCI bought his explanation because, as he told them, his participation in the sport was good for the sport. He was not only making himself rich, he was making them all rich. So they turned a blind eye and the doping continued – EPO, growth hormone, cortisone, steroids and testosterone. And when the UCI and USADA (the US Anti-Doping Agency) developed more sophisticated testing methods to identify EPO in the bloodstream, Armstrong began a program where he would give himself a transfusion of his own highly-oxygenated blood. He was always one step ahead.
Foster portrays Armstrong as (in my non-medical opinion) a psychopath and, as I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder why Armstrong wasn’t slapping Frears, screenwriter John Hodge and the producers with a lawsuit for defamation of character. So I checked out the 2013 documentary, entitled THE ARMSTRONG LIE, and I realised that Frears, Hodge and Foster got the character right. Even as Armstrong came clean on national television, there was no remorse in his eyes, his speech or his posture. If he could do it again and not get caught, he would.
THE PROGRAM is fast-paced and interesting to watch, and Foster does a great job clenching his jaw the way Armstrong does, but its weakness is that it doesn’t tell us anything more about the man and his motivation than the documentary does. His meeting and subsequent marriage to Kristin Richard is barely covered, yet in his TV interview he admitted that she was well aware of what he was doing. Similarly, Sheryl Crow is only mentioned as someone he is friends with. They dated for a few years and were engaged for about six months before she called it off. (Interestingly, neither (now ex-wife) Richard nor Crow has ever gone public about what they knew or why they left him. For Kristin, her silence may be tied to her divorce settlement but for Crow, there should be nothing stopping her.)
Even with its flaws, THE PROGRAM is still worth seeing. However, if you haven’t seen the documentary yet, I highly recommend watching that one instead (or as well).
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 29:20.)
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