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Movie review 'The Program': Debunking sportsmanship

Published Mar 12, 2016, 1:07 am IST
Updated Mar 12, 2016, 3:43 pm IST
Still from the movie.
 Still from the movie.

Cast: Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Guillaume Canet, Lee Pace, Chris O’Dowd, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffmann
Director: Stephen Frears

The Program is the story of the rise and fall of Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) and the efforts of sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) to bring Armstrong doping to light. For a long time, sportsmen were among the most-respected professionals, but in recent years, the lustre of sports has faded away. Thanks to corruption scandals in Fifa, match-fixing in cricket, the dramatic unmasking of Tiger Woods’ clean-cut image, etc.

Armstrong’s story is one of the many sporting gods whose existence has been disproven. The Program is less interested in the sport of cycling than it is in documenting how doping works. The title refers to a system of doping introduced by the corrupt physiologist Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). Armstrong and his fellow athletes have to get their physical fitness to a certain level prescribed by Ferrari. This takes some genuine effort on the part of the athletes (running, fitness, gym, diet control, etc.). And then they are doped by needles and blood transfusions to increase their stamina.

The central question dealing with Armstrong’s career is: Did doping merely enhanced Armstrong’s genuine skill and talent or it lend him an unfair advantage? The film shows that Armstrong is a skilled cyclist and that he is sincerely passionate about the sport rather than a simple con artist. It suggests, from Armstrong’s point of view, that sport is inherently about unfair advantages.
Armstrong can cycle to the best of his ability, he can train his body with discipline, but at the end of the day, his body will never give him the stamina he needs to be a Tour de France champion.

The stamina to generate oxygen for body-fuel necessary to sustain a mountainous climb and varied terrain is a biological gift and cannot be hurdled without performance-enhancing drugs. As far as the film is concerned, Armstrong taking performance-enhancing drugs is not as great a sin as his self-promotion and elevation into superstardom, which is shown here as nothing less than social climbing.

The reason Armstrong managed to survive so long as an athlete despite countless doping controversies is because he is an American, who brought with him sponsorships, viewership, and a renewed interest in cycling. Also Armstrong uses his survival and struggle with cancer to propel himself into a public figure and motivational speaker. His survival of cancer, shown briefly, and in sympathetic detail, becomes an avenue for him to get richer.

Stephen Frears is one of the most consistent and efficient filmmakers in England. The Program has many of the qualities in films like The Queen and Dangerous Liasions, namely the psychological portrayal of individuals who are incapable of separating their private and public lives, about whom audiences cannot really claim to know, and who, after a point, are incapable of being sincere. Armstrong is such a self-deceiver that it becomes impossible for him to separate his true self from the image he has built.

Ben Foster’s performance as Armstrong may strike some as being uncharismatic for a figure who was once larger-than-life, but it is effective for portraying Armstrong in human terms. The ensemble cast is excellent. French director and actor Guillaume Canet is enjoyable as Michelle Ferrari, who he plays like a B-grade movie mad scientist, one step away from an evil laugh. Jesse Plemons, a solid character who appeared in Bridge of Spies and Black Mass is quite effective as Floyd Landis, the Judas in Armstrong story. Dustin Hoffman appears in an excellent cameo.

The Program’s flaw is the second story of David Walsh investigating Armstrong, which is not as strong as the scenes with Armstrong at the centre. In either case, The Program’s demystification of the cult of sportsmen comes at an opportune time, and the criticism is directed at the ancient yearning for some form of heroism in a post-heroic age: A myth that victimises not only the hero-worshippers, but the false gods like Armstrong.

The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society



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