If you haven’t previously considered that Lance Armstrong, Wayne Rooney and Her Majesty the Queen might be equally dull company, you haven’t spoken to Stephen Frears.
Frears is anything but dull, and his new film, The Program, a faithful dramatisation of the events of Armstrong’s career, as recorded by David Walsh in his 2012 book, Seven Deadly Sins, is a fine way to spend an hour and three-quarters.
Discussing The Program in an elegant room in an elegant hotel in one of London’s most elegant districts, the director admits to never having met its subject, but also to not having any desire to do so.
“I don’t think he’s an interesting person,” Frears says of Armstrong. “I think he stumbled into something very interesting. You don’t survive cancer because you’re interesting. You survive cancer for other qualities, but of course in surviving cancer you become interesting.
“If he walked into the room now, you wouldn’t think, my goodness, this is the most interesting man I’ve ever come across. He got into this situation and behaved in this extraordinary way.”
“If the Queen walked in…” Frears is warming to his theme, changing tack to the subject of another of his films. “I don’t think the Queen is a very interesting person, but I can see her situation is very, very interesting.”
The personality of the England football captain also fails to inspire him.
“I started watching a program about Wayne Rooney last night: as dull a man as you could hope to meet, which he himself says, but blessed with such a ferocious talent. If he sat there thinking, ‘I can see I have wasted my talent; something went wrong,’ that would be interesting, but he’s not remotely reflective or thoughtful. I’m sure he’s a nice husband and a good father and all of those things, but I don’t think he has anything terribly interesting to say.”
Frears works in an industry filled, in all likelihood, with interesting and creative people. The extreme physical demands of sport, by contrast, perhaps demands a certain reduced world view among its participants; what athletes would doubtless prefer to describe as focus. Frears is not immune to the appeal of sport, however. He likes “soccer” for no particular reason and once directed a film about Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be conscripted to the war in Vietnam.
The photography of the racing scenes in The Program is stylish, without being overly stylised. Frears is savvy enough to let the action speak for itself, but his representation of bike racing is a significant raising of standard from the prosaic footage of sports broadcasting. Modestly, he admits to doing no more than his job in this regard. The film makes sophisticated use of archive footage too, notably the climb to Sestriere from stage nine of the 1999 Tour, to an extent that the line between Armstrong and Ben Foster’s portrayal of the rider becomes blurred.
“I didn’t cast Ben expecting him to look like Lance, and then it turned out he did,” Frears says of his leading man. “It happened to me when I made the film about Joe Orton with Gary Oldman [Prick Up Your Ears]; he started to look like Joe, and I guess very good actors do. They start to hold themselves the right way.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Foster’s performance is his grasp of Armstrong’s growing confidence with the media. There is a scene where “Armstrong” rehearses the now infamous line, “I have never tested positive,” experimenting with stress and intonation, all the while convincing himself of its dubious truth. When Foster plays Armstrong destroying Walsh at a press conference, we are reminded of what a fine actor Armstrong had become.
“Well, he sort of was,” Frears says, “To pull it off, to be able to lie like that, you have to have quite a lot of talent as an actor.”
It is the lie that attracted Frears to the subject of Armstrong’s career; what the director describes as “the scale of the crime”. He says that he shies away from films about sport, though enjoyed Breaking Away and the Paris-Roubaix documentary, A Sunday in Hell. He jokes about the “bloody bikes” in his film, pays tribute to David Millar’s work as consultant for its accuracy and joshes us for being lunatics, but maintains that the cycling is incidental.
“I think of it as a crime story,” he says. “I don’t really think of it as a cycling story. I thought the crime was very spectacular.”
I wonder whether this latest portrayal of a cycling era now past will perpetuate the unthinking view that the peloton remains awash with doping and also that other sports are clean. Frears is non-committal. “All you’re really saying is that people are very lazy in their opinions, which you’re right in saying.”
He got wind of the Armstrong story after reading a review of Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race in the London Review of Books, and was a guest in the convoy on Mont Ventoux at the 2013 Tour where, “a quarter of a million people were booing Chris Froome.”
“Does Chris Froome take drugs? David Walsh says not. I’ve no idea. But I can see that the French think he is. I stood 10 feet away from him. He looked to me to be a pretty regular sort of bloke.
“When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour, there were two stages where Chris Froome sort of rebelled. I liked all that. I thought you could have made a film about the two of them: the really good rider who’s lower in the order. They said, ‘We want Bradley Wiggins to win.’ I guess he’s more charismatic, which is always a prelude to disaster.
“The story made me laugh. And I thought, that’s the same story; this extraordinary pyramid shape. One man is going to win, and that’s the end of it. Just a profession in which people are called domestiques, I’m shocked by.”
This last statement is delivered with a smile. Frears clearly has a fondness for the world in which he has recently been immersed. He was also shocked by the scale of the Tour, describing it variously as phenomenal, fantastic, like a great circus and a giant striding across France. For the director, the challenge of filming the Tour is concomitantly large. Long shots are impossible, he laughs: you simply can’t fit it into one frame. “You can only do bits,” he jokes. “It’s bonkers.”
By contrast, The Program tells almost the entirety of the Armstrong story, or David Walsh’s version, at least. Bruyneel is there (Denis Ménochet), Stephen Swart (Sam Hoare), and Emma O’Reilly (Laura Donnelly); only Guillaume Canet’s Michele Ferrari is overplayed, though the physical likeness is striking.
Cycling is likely to be dogged by the Armstrong era for decades to come, much as the decline and fall of Tiger Woods is trotted out ad infinitum by the mainstream media for the non-golfer. The Program offers a sober recollection of events, likely to enthrall the casual observer and entertain the enthusiast. Frears, however, is more interesting still - perhaps more so even than Lance, Wayne Rooney or the Queen.
The Program is in cinemas now