Is there anything more tragic than a racing-movie that never gets up to speed?
There are many things more tragic than that. Testicular cancer is more tragic than that. Becoming so overwhelmed by one desire that you abandon long-held friendships and loyalties can be more tragic than that. Even the story of a talented athlete who feels compelled to cheat in order to achieve the greatness he is convinced he is capable of might be more tragic than that.
But in the The Program none of these things make for a tragic tale, they make for a plodding one.
This film’s big flaw lies in its simplicity. Say what you like about the moral implications of running the biggest, most complex doping scheme that the world of professional sport has ever seen uncovered, but I can’t believe that it was a simple scam. In order to tell the tale of the corruption in Armstrong’s professional cycling career, nuance and subtlety are sacrificed for the sake of narrative.
The push for narrative energy overwhelms The Program. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the narrative providing the driving force for a film; the adventure and horror genres are particularly good for producing great story-driven movies. This is because when your plot drives your film the major facts of the case can be delivered clearly and concisely. Unfortunately for The Program here you could replace ‘clearly and concisely’ with their synonyms ‘basically and sketchily’.
Characters are introduced and disappear again as the plot demands, so character development is handled in an extremely perfunctory manner. This is extremely noticeable in the case of Floyd Landis (played by an under-used Jesse Plemons) whose devoutly Mennonite upbringing was sometimes at odds with a career in cycling; an interesting premise. The film seems to want to explore this issue, but it ends up merely using the issue, more than once, as a shortcut to justify the next plot development.
The film even provides a handy little metaphor for how its ponderous straight-forwardness detracts from the overall experience. It does this with its racing scenes. They are two-dimensional, unoriginally shot and unintentionally humorous in the way that cyclists drift past one another like characters in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. But worst of all they are dull. The racing scenes in a film that espouses cycling as the exciting, dynamic, fast-paced sport are dull.
I think that the reason this film fails is quite easy to pin down; it is based on the book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh. In the film David Walsh, played passably well by Chris O’Dowd, is the erstwhile hero of the piece. An intrepid reporter for the Sunday Times he investigates Armstrong in the face of challenges from the authorities, colleagues and Armstrong himself. But in the book (and the film) Walsh comes across as a man who is passionate about the sport of cycling and despises what doping and dopers have turned his beloved sport into.
A character driven film would naturally invite us to at least analyse, if not even sympathise with, Armstrong’s motives. And if this was done well you would immediately encounter the complex and contradictory nature of a human being. That is not what The Program wants to achieve. Making this film narrative-driven allows it to portray Armstrong as a much more simplistic villain.
There is the unmistakeable whiff of bitter vendettas and self- promotion hanging over this film. You do not have to be a defender of Lance Armstrong to be put off by the gigantic Times masthead placed prominently behind the head of Walsh at one point when he is struggling to defend investigating his story.
‘Dieu et mon Droit’ it reads, ‘God and my Right’. This film does not do nuance.