The Program: Lance Armstrong was charming and scheming

Ben Foster impresses as Lance Armstrong in the cycling scenes in The Program

Ben Foster impresses as Lance Armstrong in the cycling scenes in The Program

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THE important thing is to detach yourself,” said David Millar. “Forget all that you know about this story and the people in it and try and appreciate the film on its own.”

We were in a screening room at the offices of Working Title in Marylebone and Millar was introducing The Program, the Stephen Frears film of the Lance Armstrong story that opened on Friday. Millar acted as expert consultant to the movie. It was his job to try and ensure that the cycling scenes were believable.

Not a job to be envied. Sports films are notoriously hit or miss affairs. For every Raging Bull there is A Shot At Glory. And anyone who has seen American Flyers will appreciate that cycling is a particularly difficult sport to dramatise. How do you recreate a 200-man peloton with actors who must look as comfortable on a bike as a professional, or an Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux packed with 200,000 people?

Frears’ solution was that you don’t. Perhaps it was Millar’s influence, but one of the successes of The Program is the way the sporting action is depicted. Unusually, they use actual footage from the Armstrong Tours, including original commentary, interspersing this with close-ups of the actors. This works partly because Ben Foster, who plays cycling’s Voldermort (as Armstrong described himself on the eve of this year’s Tour), so resembles Armstrong.

Yet, weirdly, it is on the bike – eyes narrowed and squinting up the road, shoulders hunched, jaw tight and clenched – that Foster inhabits Armstrong. Off it, he is not so convincing. You would have thought it would be the other way around, but perhaps this is testament to the hours he spent training, losing weight, and copying Armstrong’s style.

Early reviews of The Program have been fairly positive and most have praised Foster. He plays the part with “manic compulsion” (Time Out), is “eerily brilliant” (the Telegraph), a “gripping monster” (the Guardian), and he captures Armstrong’s “relentless, near-psychotic drive” (the Independent).

This would be true if Armstrong was indeed the one-dimensional caricature, “sociopath” or monster, that he has become in the eyes of the media. In real life he was a bit more complex than that.

In the movie, Foster-as-Armstrong is cold and calculating but also bland and devoid of charisma. There is no depth to his character, no real sense of where his relentless hunger, or anger, comes from. He is a personality vacuum, which makes it difficult to understand why so many people – fans, media, race organisers, governing bodies, politicians – were duped, and why so many team-mates were seduced (or bullied).

It would have been controversial – and possibly confusing – to present Armstrong as a multi-dimensional human who could be charming as well as scheming. But this, of course, goes a long way to explaining how he got away with it for so long. Yes, he was manipulative and Machiavellian. But he was more than that.

In trying to understand why Foster wasn’t a convincing Armstrong I began to think about what made Armstrong different. When most riders at the Tour de France appear for press conferences they speak against a background of general hubbub as journalists carry on working, only half-listening to what the rider is saying.

When Armstrong appeared, the place fell silent. It was partly because of his celebrity, the mythology around him, the controversies that were always bubbling away, but he commanded attention and filled the room. He was incapable of being dull and he could be funny (even on account of his lack of self-awareness, such as when he called a press conference at his comeback race, the Tour Down Under in 2009, to give his blessing to the new US president, Barack Obama).

In short, he had (I’m not sure if this still applies after his downfall) charisma. It’s hard to define exactly what charisma is, but you know when people have it and when they don’t. And the Lance Armstrong played by Ben Foster doesn’t.

IN discussing the film, Millar, pictured inset, praised Frears’ ability to strip so much away: he called it “deforestation.” “You plant all these trees,” said Millar, “then tear most of them down in the process of making the film.” Whereas a book, he added, is the opposite: it thrives on the details that film has to sacrifice in the interests of telling the story. In a book, most of the trees remain.

Millar’s own book, his second, has just come out. The Racer, organised loosely around his final season in 2014, is a “love letter to the sport”, with the focus on racing rather than doping (in contrast to his first book, Racing Through the Dark).

He began writing it after working on the Frears film, which he thinks helped him see his sport through fresh eyes. As he revealed its secrets – the drugs, blood bags, needles, the code of silence – he could see Frears’ eyes widening and his jaw dropping. Millar had been so “institutionalised”, as he puts it, that he had become inured to its oddities and excesses.

It is Millar’s ability to offer genuine, fascinating insights while also being detached enough to recognise some of the ridiculous and excessive aspects of the sport that makes The Racer such an engrossing read.

It is poignant, too, because it amounts to a farewell to his own life as a racer. He barely mentions retirement, but in relating how all-consuming the sport is, how riders are simultaneously the hardest working and most mollycoddled athletes in the world (literally all they have to do is ride their bike), and how parenthood can undermine the singular focus (selfishness) necessary to do the job, there are clues that he is mentally preparing for the looming loss. Not just the loss of a job but also the ability that has defined him – Millar knows that as soon as he stops training he will cease to be a brilliant cyclist (it doesn’t matter how much talent you have, a rider who doesn’t train is like a car without petrol).

“Athletes die twice,” a former team-mate tells Millar in an email. And Millar recalls a conversation from early in his career with Tony Rominger, who had just retired. Rominger lived in Monaco and looked at the retired tennis players, footballers and golfers with envy. “They never lose completely what they had. They always have a bit of ‘Za Magic,’ ya know? For an exhibition match or something. Me? I’m f***ed!”

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