I once heard the wily Ken G Hall pronounce on sports films. “They never work” said the grizzly old veteran, and I’m struggling to think of one that disproves his generalisation. So, that free bit of box office prediction over and done with, how exciting is The Program, a new film directed by another veteran, the seventy-four old Brit Stephen Frears.
OK I guess. It certainly tells you the whole story and leaves out the irrelevant bits like Armstrong’s personal and family life outside cycling.That life is characterised here by Lance sitting alone in a big house in Texas watching TV. It doesn’t leave out his cunning ways of winning public sympathy for himself, most notably by raising, and I assume donating, huge amounts of money for cancer research. It’s hard to think of a modern movie where the hero/lead character is portrayed as a complete arsehole in the way that Armstrong is here. Someone at the preview remarked that he came across worse in Frears biopic than he did in Alex Gibney’s doco about him and that was saying something.
All of this is assembled with Frears usual efficiency. That efficiency is often bloodless – a matter of getting the story out there and bugger being a bit humorous or playful. The job here is one of assemblage, of sticking closely to the book which exposed him so comprehensively that he had to give back huge amounts of money gained through legal proceedings (a particularly effective moment here when a barrister hectors a jury about Lance’s supposed innocence while elsewhere the net is closing in on him.)
But the real credits in this movie are for all those researchers and others who have combed through the records to find the footage to give the story what little oomph it has at least in terms of sports excitement. Put it another way, this is no rival for North Dallas Forty (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1979), the greatest sports movie ever made.
One moment worth every modest penny the researchers were paid concerns the voice of Phil Liggett, perennial TV commentator of the great race. He brings the Tour de France to the world. He is one of those who you think will go on forever. He's there with Joe Brown, Greg Miles, Bill Collins, Ken Howard, John Tapp at the races, Joe Buck at the Yankees baseball matches, Bruce McAvaney at the AFL and of course Ray Rabbits Warren, the man who once when terminated compared his contribution to the game of Rugby League alongside that of the mighty Mick Cronin. But there in Frears’ film is Liggett’s voice heard over vision of another Armstrong Tour triumph saying how he and his team dont dope. What a laugh the producers and Frears must have had when their researchers came across that gem. Slipped into the soundtrack it’s just another wincing moment that reminds us all of how gullible we were to believe that Armstrong was doing it on talent alone and that cycling wasn’t/isn’t completely chock-a-block with cheats, fraudsters, crooks and associated hangers on in much the same way as you suspect that horse racing is.
Finally, I should note the inclusion in the cast of Jesse Plemons, playing yet another bad guy with a certain brute simian look. This time its another drug cheat and Tour winner Floyd Landis, who won the year after Armstrong retired and who eventually played a role in his downfall. Wikipedia says that Plemons was in 59 episodes of Friday Night Lights between 2006 and 2011. I haven’t seen any of those. I first noticed him in the last couple of series of Breaking Bad when he’s introduced as Todd Alquist, general helpmate and low rent thuggish mate to Jesse. He has a pivotal moment when he shoots dead the kid on the bike who spots the team robbing the train. He stays in in Breaking Bad all the way through to the end when he’s called upon to resolve things.
Plemons has a magnetic attraction – a face that seems flattened out and thus enabling him to be cast as someone of no conscience at all. He gets a bigger part in the recent Black Mass and is most convincing as the young not so bright acolyte of Whitey Bulger. Plemons is also in the superb mini-series Olive Kitteridge and is coming up in the second series of Fargo. A seriously good character actor with a long career ahead of him you would hope.
But what of Frears, a director with a fine body of work to contemplate. This is a journeyman’s movie, not one in which you think he might be investing a lot of sweat and tears. But that aside, and there are plenty of others of his movies in the same category, it’s surprising really to tally up his work. He has made over forty films for either the cinema or television and the methods have remained the same. There are no flourishes. No bullshit. He is a director serving his material and his career has been characterised by his general servitude towards his writers. Famous names, literary superstars in some cases, abound either as the writer or the source material. Hanif Kureishi, Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake, Roddy Doyle, Peter Morgan , Choderlos Le Clos & Christopher Hampton, Alan Bennett, and more.
At his best he’s also not without the smarts and not above a little vulgarity. There has rarely been a feature film debut as dazzling as Gumshoe yet he had to wait over a decade to make another for the cinema. When he did he delivered The Hit, as good a bit of Brit spiv cinema as its precedents, among others, They Made Me a Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947) and Noose (Edmond T Greville, 1948). And let me mention a dazzling 50 minute TV film titled Mr Jolly Lives Next Door with Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Peter Cook as the serial axe murderer at the centre of the drama. Notwithstanding that some think this is a film beyond vulgarity, ask me to name the ten funniest things ever committed to film and alongside A Dog’s Life, To Be or Not to Be and Twentieth Century there’s a place for Mr Jolly Lives Next Door.
So The Program is just so-so entertainment. For cinephiles it may however lead you to find the following more modest but more appealing gems:Gumshoe, The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, A Day Out, Sunset Across the Bay, Bloody Kids (MFF, 1980), The Deal and of course the forever brilliant Mr Jolly Lives Next Door.