What's Cool In Road Cycling

Film Review: Lance Armstrong – The Program

Film Review: Ed Hood loves the Tour de France, adores the Giro, infatuated with the Classics and is bereft if he can’t go to the World Championships, but in the ‘normal’ World he loves going to the cinema. So what better mix than a cycling movie? The new Lance Armstrong film was his choice flick of week-end – here is what he thought of the ‘Block Buster’.

He’s back!

Yup, Plano’s finest is with us again; no, no, it’s not another comeback – if you remember, the last one didn’t go quite to plan. It started out not bad at all with a return to the Tour podium but then Floyd popped up – all that Mennonite guilt finally getting the better of him – and instead of the podium, Lance landed up on Oprah’s chair.

Lance on the Oprah chair

Nope, this one isn’t on a Trek, it’s on the silver screen.

‘The Program’ is the name of the movie and we got ourselves along to Edinburgh Filmhouse to see it on Saturday night. The fact that the whole Lance Saga is now filed under; ‘who gives a rat’s backside’ is underscored by the fact that the film was shown on Screen Three, the smallest of the three cinemas in the Filmhouse.

The main starts of The Program

They’re all there – the central characters we remember and love from the sprawling multi-act opera which played out before us just a few short years ago. Lance is played by Ben Foster who captures the Texan’s brash, ‘all that counts is winning’ persona very well. A complicated man who can summon steely hatred for those who challenge him – even when they’re telling the truth and he’s not. But a man who’ll put aside his PA’s iPad mega-schedule to just sit and ‘chill’ with a young cancer sufferer.

Incidentally, Foster ‘got pelters’ for kitting up himself so he could understand the role better – but that’s what those ‘method’ actor types do. . . Johan Bruyneel is played by Denis Menochet who also does a better than fair job of capturing the essence of a man who’s ‘been there and done it’ himself and understands the beautiful, brutal sport and it’s workings better than just about anyone else on the planet.

The real Bruyneel and Armstrong

Betsy Andreu is in there; feisty and with everything in black and white – no shades of grey and unafraid of Armstrong, even if husband Frankie is. . . I did an interview with Betsy a few months ago and can confirm that she’s is 100% ‘by the numbers,’ straight talking and unflinching. The famous ‘hospital room’ is in there where a cadaverous Lance is asked by one of his doctors what kit he’s been getting down him; without missing a beat he reels them off – EPO, testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormone. . .

Jesse Plemons is convincing as Floyd Landis, the hugely talented but wayward Lance disciple who strikes out on his own, ‘wins’ Le Tour but finds out the hard way that the dangerous games which Lance and Bruyneel make look simple are anything but.

Foster looks the part

The scene where Landis asks Lance for a ride with Astana is handled well; Landis, desperate to come in from the cold and be part of the team again is rebutted by Lance. Was it because the Texan didn’t want to be ‘contaminated’ by Landis’s ‘positif’ – he could easily have said; “Floyd deserves a second chance” and no one would have batted an eyelid – or was it because Landis had dared to question Lance during his USPS tenure?

Armstrong and Landis in USPS

Only Lance can answer that and one has to ponder that he’s thought to himself; “I wish I’d given Floyd that ride” more than once. It’s to be remembered that it was Landis’s testimony which eventually brought Lance down – not David Walsh.

Walsh is played in the film by Chris O’Dowd who also does a convincing job of Walsh’s journey from being a fan of the young, brash, aggressive Lance to a disbeliever when he witnesses the new improved ‘slim line’ Lance having to brake on climbs because he’s going so fast – uphill!

On the attack

But I had to question the press room scenes where the journos are amazed and impressed by Lance’s Tour domination – not in the press rooms I’ve inhabited. Fabulous performances are generally greeted with laughter not applause. . .

Paul Kimmage doesn’t get a mention but I suppose one crusading Irishman per movie is enough.

It’s perhaps appropriate that Dustin Hoffman has a Cameo as Bob Hamman, world champion bridge player and owner of SCA Promotions, who indemnified Armstrong’s multi-million dollar win bonuses and initially lost a court battle with Armstrong. Hoffman was penciled in as the star of a planned big budget US Tour de France movie back in the ‘80’s which was never actually made but had many metres of reportedly brilliant race action footage shot.


Favourite character in the film is Doctor Ferrari, played by Guillaume Canet; “it’s about science” to the Italian who reminds me of a young Giorgio Moroder in his detached, analytical approach to another sphere where emotion is one of the major fuels. His questioning of the speaker at a conference to explain the benefits of EPO for patients suffering or recovering from kidney problems is typical; all he can think about is how it will boost his athlete’s performances. When the conference speaker rebuffs Ferrari regarding the ethical aspect of athletes taking the substance to boost performance the Italian seems genuinely puzzled as to why they shouldn’t.

The cycling sequences – which are a tad ‘American Flyers,’ the king of corny, cycling movies – are augmented by actual footage of Lance and his automatons dismantling the world’s best stage race riders whilst Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen deliver their cringe-inducing rap.

Foster/Armstrong takes the win

When we look back now it’s embarrassing, how did we allow ourselves to be taken in by a team which is on it’s knees one day then riding like Cyborgs the next? One of the enjoyable – or is it sad? – things about being movies-daft is the post screening chat in the car or cab home.

Ours spilled way over into the kitchen and close on midnight.

Marlene refused to be swayed by my argument that Lance was a ‘product of circumstance,’ a winner who ‘put up’ when men with lesser will to win would have ‘shut up’ and headed back across the Atlantic to be a big fish in a shallow pool. But not our Lance, he went on to become the most voracious predator in the whole ocean.

The hard talking press conference

To Marlene he’s a cheat, a control freak and a liar and my argument that he’s a convenient figure to hate whilst others who played the same games as Lance & Co. continue to go about their daily business with n’er a hiccup, cut’s no ice. The man certainly hasn’t lost his ability to divide opinion. . .

Zip it!

Given the fact that he was born with a winner’s mentality in a State of the Union where men think big and second place means ‘best loser’ it’s no surprise that he went to the lengths he did. But if the UCi had just handled that ‘positive’ in his first Tour win – where he ducked it with the ‘saddle sore cream’ smoke and mirrors rap – it could all have been so different.

But then we wouldn’t have had the whole soap opera – and when’s the musical, anyway?

Broadway – Peter Andre as Lance, John Barrowman as. . .

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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