One of the enduring, almost mythological appeals of America has always been the promise that anyone has a shot at glory over there. As long as you persist and are willing to pay the price, nothing is out of reach in the land of the free, the home of the brave. Dream big, do whatever it takes, win everything.
That people can take this too far and resort to unthinkable measures for the sake of success is illustrated with sharp, ironic sobriety in the Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. Chronicling Armstrong’s rise to the top of the Tour de France, his unprecedented seven-year dominance of the cycling championships, and how it all came crumbling down after his elaborate doping scheme was exposed, this movie compels with its portrait of an insanely driven, charismatic yet repellent character, someone both winsome and loathsome. The scenes where the sportsman lies around getting his chemical boosts or frantically pumps water into his veins to avoid drug detection go hand-in-hand with those of a doting, inspiring icon taking extra time with cancer kids during hospital visits. And it’s through such paradoxical – both pitifully absurd and admirably kind – depictions that this man really starts to make sense.
Frears (The Queen) is, of course, no stranger to profiling complex, controversial public figures. Here he not only taps into a fascinating mindset, but further widens his observation to include the societal impact of celebrity and our collective obsession with feel-good narratives – how the fact that no one wanted to ruin the party most likely allowed a scandal to go on much longer than it should have. In the process, he’s crafted an engrossing anti-hero story that doesn’t reflect well on the rest of us.
The Program | Directed by Stephen Frears (UK 2015) with Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Chris O’Dowd. Starts October 8
Originally published in issue #142, October 2015.