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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Program, Review: Enhanced performances


The Program, Review: Enhanced performances

First, there was a musician called Louis Armstrong. Then most of earth and all of moon heard about Neil Armstrong. Much later, we read and saw the exploits of cycling champion Lance Armstrong. Louis remains a musical great. Man-on-the-moon was an unimaginable theory that captured the hearts and minds of the whole world, but has now found its detractors, probably growing steadily in number, who claim the whole program (American spelling intended) was a hoax. Now, since 2012, the third Armstrong has emerged as the man who put the drugs spoke in the wheels of the much enjoyed French cycle racing Championship, the Tour de France. This doping program was no hoax.

The Program had its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then went on DirecTV. It has taken its time getting to the big screen, for unknown reasons, but releases this week in India.

A biopic/docu-feature in the thriller format, The Program charts the rise of pro-cyclist Lance Armstrong through the 90s and early 2000s, battling testicular cancer, as he and his fellow American team-mates from the US Postal Service dominate the quintessentially European sport of cycling. In 1993, when Armstrong wanted to ride honestly, he discovered that the game is already ‘rigged’ by biology: those with a certain body type, and who can hold more oxygen in their blood, will always outlast everyone else, especially on high altitudes. Following his cancer treatment, Armstrong resolves to work with Dr. Michele Ferrari (of cycling notoriety, not automobile variety; do not be misled by the surname), an Italian who realises the potential of protein hormone erythropoietin (EPO) as a performance enhancing drug that cannot be easily detected, to develop a program that will give Armstrong and his team the edge to compete.

Winning the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times, Lance retires as one of the great sporting heroes of our time, and worth millions of dollars. David Walsh, sports writer for the Sunday Times, is highly surprised by Armstrong’s vast improvement after cancer, and begins probing. Armstrong’s ex-teammate and whistle-blower Floyd Landis, facing the heat, decides to bring down the man who ran the systematic doping programme that spanned the whole team, cyclists and managers alike.

Featuring American, French, British and Italian characters, the103-minute long film is a UK production, with the participation of French company, Studio Canal. Emanating from the book—The Seven Deadly Sins--by the scribe who uncovered the racket, David Walsh, the film has great credibility. How much of the book went into the film, and whether cinematic license was taken (a lot, surely!), only insiders will know. The Program has a screenplay by John Hodge (The Sweeney, A Life Less Ordinary, Trainspotting), 52 year-old Scottish writer who has been accused of overlooking the rivalry Armstrong had with the likes of Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki and Ivan Basso. After a quick lead-up to his marriage, there is almost nothing about his family life. In January 2013, Armstrong appeared on the Oprah Winfrey TV show and admitted that he had taken drugs during every one of his seven Tour de France victories. That show is part of the film, only sans Winfrey, only capturing the off-screen questions and Armstrong’s on-screen answers. Due credit to Hodge for tight rope-walking, one foot on the documentary, the other on the medical/ethical thriller.

British director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) helms this outing. High-voltage performances are a given with Frears, his latest re-iterating the reputation. Helped by natural polarisations, he gets to pit several manners of men and women in face-offs that result in rivetting drama: means-do-not-matter sportsmen and team-owners, cranky maniac doctor, upright and steadfast journalist, jealous team-mates, wary investors and re-insurers, weighed-by-religion sinner, etc. It works very well in drawing out the best from his team of actors. Some of the drug-injecting and related scenes could cause you to shift in your seat, so stay warned.

Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong; Messenger, The Lone Survivor, The Mechanic) has gone public with a statement that, to better understand his role, he took performance enhancing drugs while shooting the film. Speaking to the BBC, he said he felt the drugs had "definitely damaged" his body, even though he took them in a "contained, doctor-supervised manner." Foster has not named the drugs he took, except to say that they were "all legal." He added, "I had a great doctor, which helped me handle some of those consequences. But it took about half a year to get my levels right, and I would say for any athlete, you have to ask, 'Where are your values?' " Is that going too far? Let the jury decide. Acting-wise is a superb show

Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids, This is 40, Calvary), Irish comedian, football Liverpool fan, and 6’ 3” tall appears as David Walsh, and scales great heights. Guillaume Canet, French, son of horse-rearers, and seen in Cars, Narco, Darling, Last Night plays Michele Ferrari, the crazed, semi-maniacal doctor with scary intensity. Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), started acting at age three. His first job was a Coke commercial. Plemons’ pet-name is Meth Damon, result of his striking similarity to the star. Not surprisingly, Plemons played young Damon in All the Pretty Horses (2000). Not just Damon, he bears some resemblance to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg too. In a far removed claim to fame, Plemons is a great, great, great grandson of Stephen F. Austin, who founded Austin, Texas.

Landis is an orthodox Mennonite, and that denomination of the Christian Church might be quite alien to many Indians. In fact, it has only 79,150 adult members in the US. On their website, they describe themselves thus, “While we called ourselves “Anabaptists” in the 1500s, others nicknamed us the “Mennonites” after one of our early leaders, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest who aligned himself with the Anabaptists, in 1536.  The nickname stuck. And after 500 years, we’re still known as the Mennonites. We are neither catholic nor protestant.” These details are provided here to help the viewer understand the moral dilemma that the drug-propped champion Landis faces, coming from a community that forbids cycling for pleasure.

Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Rain Man, Kramer v/s Kramer, Tootsie), now 78 but not looking it, appears as Bob Hamman, a re-insurer who is concerned about the financial implications of the revelations in the big money championships, is as natural as ever. It’s a brief role, making few demands on his immense talent. Appreciable support comes from Lee Pace as Bill Stapleton, Denis Ménochet (French, Inglourious Basterds, in a complete and compelling change of image) as Johan Bruyneel (the manager of Armstrong’s team and Chief implementer of the doping program), Edward Hogg as Frankie Andreu, Elaine Cassidy as Betsy Andreu (husband and wife, also whistle blowers), Peter Wight as the Sunday Times Editor and Laura Donnelly as Emma O'Reilly (Armstrong’s masseuse).

I tried a search on the Tour de France website for ‘Lance Armstrong’. Guess what I got? “No results.”

Rating: ***1/2



David Walsh, the dogged exposer

While giving the Hugh Cudlipp annual lecture on 27 January 2014, in London, David Walsh, the Sunday Times's chief sports-writer, told the audience that his exposé was based on his inside knowledge of professional cycling. A French rider, Christophe Bassons, had written a column for the French newspaper, Le Parisien, in which he suggested that Tour de France riders were taking drugs. Armstrong pulled Bassons up during one of the Tour stages, and told him he had no right to be a professional cyclist, and what he was writing was bad for cycling.

"If Armstrong was anti-doping, Bassons would have been his friend, not his enemy," said Walsh. "Why bully him?" It confirmed his suspicion that Armstrong, who went on to win that 1999 Tour, was a drug-taker.

It wasn't until June 2012 that Walsh was finally vindicated when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Armstrong from competitive cycling for life for doping offences and said he had been engaged in "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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