The Program: Film

Thoughts on the new Lance Armstrong Biopic & Notes from the live Q&A with Stephen Frears and David Walsh…

Tomorrow marks the release of the new Lance Armstrong biopic “The Program” directed by Stephen Frears. (High Fidelity, The Queen) The film is inspired by the award winning book ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ by David Walsh, the Irish journalist who covered cycling throughout the Lance days, and continues to today. The preview screening at the Barbican Centre last night was followed by a Q&A with Stephen Frears himself and David Walsh, hosted by Rebecca Charlton.

Anyone who follows cycling probably knows some details of the relationship between Lance and David Walsh(played brilliantly by Chris O’Dowd), and will be familiar with most of the events that unfold over the 100 minutes of the film. So as a cycling fan or an industry professional, it’s not the easiest film to get lost in, but an enjoyable and entertaining portrayal nonetheless.


Ben Foster plays the formidable Armstrong in the film. Whilst he delivers when showing the softer, vulnerable side of Lance, he fails to capture the true menace of the leader of the Omerta, and the fear and bullying that were essential to his success at the cover-up. David Walsh mentioned in a side comment to Stephen in the Q&A, “Stephen, I actually get the feeling that Ben quite likes Lance” in which Stephen replies “Yes I knew that…” and in this exchange we might see the reason that the character is played so sympathetically.

We see bits of a few stories intertwined:  The story between Armstrong and Floyd Landis, the story between Armstrong and Walsh, the Andreus, and of course, Michele Ferrari.  Perhaps had the film focused in on just one of these relationships, the suspense would have built a bit, the true psychological warfare that was the real story would have come to the surface more.

The content is indeed real, and on all accounts historically accurate.  It would be wrong to not mention that Michele Ferrari is in the process of a lawsuit with Studio Canal, attempting to block the film’s release in Italy. “I was told the other night that Michele Ferrari is suing us! Banned twice from sport: Lifetime ban? I wish him luck! I’m riveted to know what his arguments are.” commented Frears on this topic.

Regardless, the cinematography, music, and cycling scenes in the film were a spectacle to behold. It’s a wonderful thing to see a mainstream director give the sport so much care and attention, and perhaps to see the unique beauty in cycling visible to insiders. The role of Floyd Landis played by “Breaking Bad”‘s Jesse Plemons was one of the better on-screen performances I have seen in many years.  The struggle of his character, between right and wrong, child and adult, the moral struggle is a portrayal in itself carrying the film for its duration.

The director acknowledges the challenge in making this incredibly complex film, especially for a cycling audience, saying: ” You make a mistake, and then you remake it, suddenly realise how complex it is, and how many films there are inside there, and you slowly work it out, although to be fair, I did always say to myself I thought of it as sort of “Heist” movie” so I turned my back… on.. well I didn’t want to make just a cycling film: I just thought it was a very good crime story.”

He went on to comment on some of the feedback he has received, in his jovial nature: “Firstly, all cyclists are lunatics, they all have binoculars preying on everything: oh it wasn’t the right kind of bike… the clothes they were wearing in that year, so you are working to appease people whose judgement you are terrified of.”


David Walsh delighted the audience afterwards with some personal tales, an unpublished slice of things he went through whilst uncovering this story. Details of press rooms, miles in cars, and perhaps most poignantly, watching the Oprah Winfrey interview when Armstrong finally confessed:

“I was alone in the (Times) office, sitting in this huge building in Canary Wharf, I’m alone in the building, 3am when Lance says I’m going to apologise, to Frankie and Betsy, to Emma O’Reilly, and Oprah says “but will you apologise to David Walsh?” And this is from left field for him, and he doesn’t know how to respond. The last thing he wants to do is apologise to m:e he feels I am the problem, as much as he is. He says “hmm that’s a good question. “Oprah comes back to him and says “Will you apologise to David Walsh who has pursued this story for 13 years, written at the Times, written books about you? And now Lance is under pressure and he says “ Yes I will apologise to David Walsh.” But of course he didn’t mean that. He’s never going to apologise to me.  And as I’m watching that, sitting in this big building alone, I’m thinking this is about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on television.  And Lance hasn’t apologised, of course. He told a friend there were two people in this whole episode that he could never forgive: Travis Tygart( head of USADA) and David Walsh.”

“And god knows, why we need the forgiveness of Lance Armstrong.


The Program is out on general release Oct 16, playing at cinemas nationwide.


Words: Laura Fletcher

Images: Ben Broomfield