Austin Film Festival 2015: “The Program” frustrates

After an Austin Film Festival week of some excellent films, some good one and some that recalled the famous Homer Simpson line, “Let us never speak of the shortcut again” (not to mention the disastrous Oct. 30 storm that ended up being responsible for dozens of panels cancellations and is still wreaking havoc with airline schedules as I type), the fest came to a close the night of Nov. 5 with “The Program,” British filmmaker Stephen Frears’ dramatization of the Lance Armstrong story.

"The Program"
“The Program”

The problem (and this might have partially explained a half-empty ground floor of the Paramount for the film) is that virtually anyone interested in the Lance Armstrong story already knows the Lance Armstrong story. And Frears’ movie doesn’t offer fresh insights on this still-exceptionally weird tale. (It is a tale told  far better in Alex Holmes’ stellar documentary “Stop at Nothing” and Alex Gibney’s solid doc “The Armstrong Lie.”)

Based on sports journalist David Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” Frears swiftly (too swiftly, actually) covers the whole sordid tale.

Back in 1993 Armstong (a terrifying Ben Foster) is generally thought of (at least by Walsh) as a talented sprinter on the bike but not a guy built for the Tour de France’s punishing hills.  The films lays out their relationship rapidly: Armstrong, even then a merciless competitor, beats Walsh (Chris O’Dowd, charming as usual) in a game of foosball. The bet was Walsh’s beard — Walsh says he was kidding, Armstrong insists he shave. Next shot: no beard.

Armstrong, frustrated at certain teams too-consistent success,  starts sniffing around doping czar Michele Ferrari (played with a hint of Nazi-doctor by Guillaume Canet), the Italian physician who designed the titular doping program. But it’s not until after Armstrong’s still-miraculous bout with testicular cancer (rendered in appropriately horrifying, sickly greens, Foster’s body twisted in bed) that Armstrong goes all in with Ferrari, taking the U.S. Postal team along with him. He has beaten cancer in spectacular fashion, set himself up as an example of pure will and his feats on the bike will seal the deal.

Given that “the Program” is  as much Walsh’s perspective as it is Armstrong’s story, Frears keeps Armstrong at a distance (Armstrong’s personal life is virtually non-existent here). The most emotionally charged moment comes with a close-up on Walsh, watching Armstrong’s (quite literally) superhuman explosion into the lead in the 1998 Tour. As journalists cheer around him, Walsh’s face falls — he knows in his gut he is witnessing a con job and, worse, he knows that nobody cares.

And indeed, they don’t care. Cycling loves the publicity, Armstrong loves winning (which he parlays into the wildly successful Livestrong Foundation) and is smart enough never to test positive for performance enhancing drugs.

With a dead eyed stare and sense of destiny, Foster (and to a slightly lesser extent Lee Pace as extremely tall CSE co-founder Bil Stapleton) revels in this zero-sum if-I-win-then-you-must-lose worldview that somehow seems very Texan (or maybe it’s just the accent, not to mention Foster’s uncanny resemblance to Armstrong).

A wrinkle, as they say comes in the person of Floyd Landis (central Texan Jesse Plemons in an excellent performance). At first down for whatever, Landis, raised a devout Mennonite, struggles with guilt of all the lies and, increasingly, Armstrong’s willingness to intimidate those who speak to the press about cycling doping culture.  Eventually, Landis wins. Eventually, Landis confesses. Eventually, Armstrong is on Oprah, confessing the fraud to the world.

Unfortunately, the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is an enormously complicated story. Characters who were central to Armstrong’s public story — whistle-blowers such as Betsy Andreu, wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu, and trainer Emma O’Reilly — are cyphers here.  If anything, Frears would have better served the material with that most 2010s of forms: the HBO mini series.





Author: Joe Gross

Joe Gross has covered books, movies, music and culture for the American-Statesman since 2002. He tweets at @joegross.

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