The Program

We Goblins have a history with this film, having been to a work-in-progress screening of it several years ago. At the request of the film company, and in adherence to good manners, we didn’t write about it at the time. Then on its cinematic release it zoomed by so quickly it can only have been doping. So it’s not until now, during its cinematic Oprah confessional on Amazon Prime, that we’ve finally got to review it.

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As you may have guessed, this is a film about a blood doping scandal, namely that of Lance Armstrong, who was divested of his seven Tour de France wins after pumping himself with Bane-style chemicals for every single one. Here Ben Foster plays Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd is Times journalist David Walsh, as we’re shown Armstrong’s entry to cycling, cancer diagnosis and recovery, stunning series of wins, and downfall. They should have called it Pedalling Lies.

This is of the breed of biopics which prefers to show events rather than tell a story. The result is much more interesting as a study of professional doping than the inner workings of the stone-cold cyclepath. Foster as Armstrong is a wheely good piece of casting, capturing his jumpy-eyed intensity. But the film barely scratches the surface of the case, leaving many interesting questions unanswered. How genuine was Armstrong’s charity work through his cancer foundation Livestrong? How complicit were the cycling authorities in allowing doping? What was the personal journey that led him to finally admitting the truth?

This is partly a result of the decision to show it through the eyes of David Walsh and his investigations into Armstrong. All the President’s Men this is not, and a quest to find the truth in the low-stakes world of deciding who is the best at cycling isn’t particularly compelling. The people who really suffered due to the scandal were those who looked up to Armstrong, including many people with cancer, but this side of the film is not really explored.

And perhaps the most interesting part of the story: what led to Armstrong’s decision to admit his wrongdoings and the subsequent impact on him and those around him, are neglected as the film ends on his Oprah appearance, which anyone can watch on YouTube.

So in spite of having fully-rendered special effects and a few nips and tucks to the structure, the result is the same as when we watched the incomplete film. It’s a fairly interesting look at how the doping scandal was pulled off – preventing it from becoming a velo-drone – but it never really gets under Armstrong’s skin the way so many needles did.

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