The Program a capable artifact of cycling’s most divisive era

23 02 2016

Last fall, two geeked-out biopics were released in theatres.

One, Steve Jobs, had the weight of A-List stars like Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet and top-drawer writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle.

It got the full red carpet treatment, breathless coverage of its premiere on Entertainment Tonight.

The other was released everywhere but North America.

That’s because it’s about a bike racer.

Not just any bike racer, mind you.

The Program tells the story of Lance Armstrong’s remarkable and ultimately illusionary rise to the sport’s stratosphere, and his precipitous plummet into scandal and deceit. It’s told from the perspective of an Irish sports journalist, David Walsh, who wasn’t buying into Armstrong’s myth-building. He smelled something rotten and his nose proved prescient.

It’s got some decent talent behind it as well; Ben Foster plays Lance, Chris O’Dowd is Walsh and noted biopic specialist Stephen Frears directs.

Ben Foster plays Lance Armstrong in The Program.

Ben Foster plays Lance Armstrong in The Program.

But bike racing barely raises a blip in North America, especially since Lance’s demise. So while audiences in Britain, Turkey, Israel and even Iceland were able to see the film months ago, and it’s already playing on some international flights, we’ve only just seen the trailer pop up in iTunes. The film will finally be released here on March 18, although how wide that release will be is still unknown. I’ve yet to see an ad on TV.

As it’s opened around the world, reviews for The Program have been mixed.

Being the impatient sort, I managed to find a copy of the film.

So I watched it.

The Program is a capable film. It’s got some excellent performances, by Foster, Denis Ménochet as Johann Bruyneel, and Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis.

Rather than drill deep into aspects of the Lance story, as Sorkin did with Steve Jobs’ rise, fall and resurrection, The Program tries to cover the whole damn ugly thing from Armstrong’s breakthrough as world champion to his Oprah confessional. Significant moments, like Lance’s cancer diagnosis, treatment and ultimate comeback fly past the screen in moments. Key characters in the Lance narrative, like Frankie and Betsy Andreu, whip in and out of the movie, rarely leaving much of an impression. Turning points like Armstrong’s connection with notorious druggist Michele Ferrari, or his hubris to comeback and try for an eighth Tour de France yellow jersey are treated more like vignettes. If you’re waiting for a cameo by Sheryl Crow or her likeness, you’ll be disappointed.

But the true test of any sports film, especially one that’s based on a true story, is its ability to engage that sports’ fans, who will be extremely sensitive to any fault or license with accuracy that might quickly take them out of the movie, release their belief. And here Boyle and his production team succeed admirably.

There’s not a lot of actual bike racing scenes in The Program. But the ones that are there are nicely filmed, not overly-choreographed. Filling out the production’s peloton with former pros like Andreas Klier, Thomas Dekker and Servais Knaven might have something to do with that.

The designers pay remarkable attention to detail, faithfully recreating the kits, bikes and even team cars through the Lance era. It would have been easy, and much cheaper, to fudge over some of that stuff; but that would have immediately alienated those film-goers who also happen to be cycling fans.

If nothing else, The Program works as an artifact of one of the most exciting, transforming and divisive eras in professional cycling.

There’s no spoiler alerts for The Program; we all know the arc of Lance’s story, how it turns out.

Unfortunately there’s no new information or revelations in Boyle’s treatment that would have made great coffee stop conversation on the next FRF ride. Or cast a wide enough net to draw all but hardcore cycling fans or Lance anti-fans into the multiplex.

Catch this one as soon as it comes out; it will likely be gone the next week. That’s not an indictment of the film. Just the reality of cycling’s place in North America’s sports’ consciousness.