The Program, film review: Stephen Frears' portrayal of Lance Armstrong obeys the first rule of a sports film - have a strong villain

Stephen Frears' portrayal of Lance Armstrong obeys the first rule of sports films: have a strong villian

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The Independent Culture

The cheats have it. When it comes to sports movies, whether dramas or documentaries, the ones about the drug takers, the gamblers, the philanderers and the liars tend to be richer and far more compelling than those that celebrate sporting glory achieved honestly.

“Wholesome” sports films suggest that you can win medals and championships through hard work and decency. Heroes overcome familiar obstacles before being shouldered off the field in triumph in time to marry their childhood sweetheart. There is another kind of movie that prefers to look at the darker side of sport – the corruption, subterfuge and ruthlessness that often goes along with winning and the emotional carnage the rogue athletes leave in their wake.

The Program, Stephen Frears’s new film, is a film very much in the latter tradition. It portrays the disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong as a modern-day Faust. As played by Ben Foster, Armstrong has a relentless, near psychotic drive. After overcoming cancer, he declares that he never wants to be “that close to losing” again. The Mephistophelian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) offers him what the doctor calls, with obvious irony, “a heavenly vision”. By taking the wonder drug EPO, he can “learn to fly”.

The shameless, egotistical Armstrong is fascinating in a way that a less aggressive, more honest cyclist simply wouldn’t have been. As he racks up Tour de France wins, he behaves with the arrogance of a Roman emperor. He has money and power. “I am Lance Armstrong and he is fucking no-one,” is his response to the journalist who has the temerity to question his methods. By the time he endures trial by Oprah Winfrey on American TV, he has managed to convince himself he isn’t really cheating at all and that it is his natural right to win, even if he bends the rules.

The notorious Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who was disqualified for doping after winning the 100 metre final at the Seoul Olympics, had a similar mindset. He was one of the subjects of  9.79*, an excellent recent documentary about what has become known as “the dirtiest race in history”. (Almost every runner in the Seoul sprint had failed a drugs test at one time or another.)

On screen and in interviews in support of the film, Johnson offered a strange mix of defiance and contrition. His argument, similar to that of Armstrong, was that cheating was endemic in his sport and that it was his job to win.

 

“OK, let me make this thing very, very clear. What happened to my career and what I did in my life, that was my choice. People can say what message are you sending to the young kids,” he told me when I asked him whether he felt he had let down the children who once idolised him. “My answer to that is that I don’t have a contract to be role model to kids. Parents should be the role model to kids. Not me.”

His words were both depressing and tinged with pathos. Sports stars may not have contracts to be “role models” but that is precisely what they become. When they betray their fans in films, there is always bound to be a kid at the corner of the frame, looking utterly crestfallen. These stars were once kids themselves but have somehow mislaid or sacrificed their ideals along the way. 

John Sayles’s Eight Men Out (1988) is about the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal, when the World Series itself was thrown. This happened at a pivotal moment in US cultural life, on the eve of Prohibition, just before (as the director put it) “the Roaring Twenties which was one of the most cynical, corrupt periods.” The events on the baseball field prefigured a loss of innocence in the country as a whole during the Boardwalk Empire era. As always, the athletes were blamed but their behaviour mirrored that of those who administered their sport.

The film features a wonderfully touching recreation of an incident alleged to have happened in real life. A boy approaches Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the star players in the Chicago White Sox, outside the courtroom, and implores him, “Say it ain’t so, Joe, say it ain’t so.” It was “so.”

Many of the films about tarnished sports stars show them from the point of view of the journalists who cover their careers. In The Program, Chris O’Dowd plays the dogged Sunday Times reporter David Walsh, who pursued the truth about Lance Armstrong in the face of intimidation and law suits. And one of the best films about the dark side of a sports star is Ron Shelton’s Cobb (1994), starring Tommy Lee Jones as baseball legend Ty Cobb, the so-called “Georgia Peach”, who turned out to be rotten at the core.

It’s a film with a double perspective on its subject. Robert Wuhl plays a journalist hired to write Cobb’s biography long after his retirement. The book is intended as a conventional account of a baseball star. At the same time, though, the journalist is working on another secret story, one which reveals the truth about Cobb. In reality, he was a monster on the field and off it: a racist, misanthropic, wife-beating cheat.

The second story is much more colourful than the original version. The real question, the one that lies behind every decent movie about a cheating or fallen sports star, is why they did it. As their legacy is destroyed, they invariably end up as much the victim as their opponents or the fans they have short-changed – and that is why the films about them have such poignancy.  

‘The Program’ has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, 10-20 September and is released in the UK on 16 October

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