It seems we sometimes build up our heroes for the express purpose of later being able to tear them down, or at least watch as they self-destruct under their own power. It’s always been like this to some extent but has become worse in the last 20 years with the rise of “reality” TV where we root for the villains and schemers, hoping they survive long enough to amass power that will ultimately be turned against them. That coupled with a news cycle that’s now under an hour, where we always need something new to be outraged about, and you have an environment where the audience is ready to accept a hero right up until the moment they no longer serve their purpose. Sometimes that’s warranted, sometimes not.
One of the most high-profile cases of a superstar falling from grace recently is captured in the new movie The Program. Ben Foster stars in the “inspired by true events” story of cyclist Lance Armstrong. The story follows Armstrong as he’s investigated by Irish journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who’s convinced Armstrong has been using banned enhancement substances, as has long been rumored, to win over and over again a the Tour de France. The two engage in a cat-and-mouse, with Walsh hunting down proof of Armstrong’s wrongdoing while Armstrong continues to trade off the image he’s cultivated as an elite world athlete.
The single one-sheet for the movie is clear about its subject. We see Foster as Armstrong looking back over his shoulder, the yellow that became associated with the cyclist serving as a background color, a nice way to heighten the brand association in the mind of the audience. In the middle of the poster are some character attributes the movie would like us to associate with Armstrong: “Champion. Hero. Legend. Cheat.” So it’s clear there’s a point of view here. At the top we get the credentials of Frears with a list of critically-acclaimed movies he’s produced and directed.
There had been a couple U.K. trailers but the first U.S. domestic trailer follows the narrative arc of the movie pretty closely. We start out with Armstrong as someone struggling to break through on the international racing circuit, which leads him to find other means to break through the pack, going on “the program” along with others. The journalist Walsh, though, is suspicious and the rest of the trailer shows Walsh’s dogged pursuit of the truth behind Armstrong’s unusual success, pushed on by persistent rumors of his doping.
It’s a good trailer that nicely shows the audience more or less the entire narrative arc of the movie. It doesn’t create a super-compelling reason to go see the movie since the story looks like just a slightly-dramatized version of real events, so it’s all about ramping up that drama, something the trailer tries to do throughout its running time, with shots of characters slamming hands on tables and so on. The movie looks good, but it’s not clear what, if anything, new it brings to the conversation.
Online and Social
The official website for the movie opens by tracking your location and telling you where it’s playing near you, with an encouragement to buy tickets. If you close that motion video takes over the page with scenes from the trailer.
There’s a menu at the top that includes another prompt to “Get Tickets” followed by a button with the “Trailer.”
Go into “Discover More” and you get some background on the real people depicted in the story. The Legend covers some basic facts about Armstrong, The Source introduces us to his teammate Floyd Landis, The Science to the doctor who played a role in supplying Armstrong with the drugs to help him cycle and finally The Truth, which is about Walsh and his quest for the real story behind Armstrong’s success.
There’s also a “Gallery” section that has a handful of stills.
Advertising and Cross-Promotion
No TV spots or other advertising that I could find or which I came across.
Media and Publicity
Some of the biggest publicity the movie got came when Foster revealed that he had experimented with some of the same drugs Armstrong took in an effort to really get into character, though Foster expressed regret over having done so and said, yeah, maybe that wasn’t a great idea.
Other than that there wasn’t much, just what resulted from the release of marketing materials like trailers and posters. The movie actually debuted on home video, including VOD, last month so there appears to have been a bit of conversation about it then but that’s it.
There’s the kernel of a really interesting campaign here but I feel like it’s not given enough room to breathe or really be executed at scale. I’m not sure why that is, either, since this could be a compelling story about something that happened pretty recently. Instead it feels like the campaign is just sort of half-executed and there isn’t nearly the emotional heft a story like this should have. That may be a symptom of it coming from a UK distributor or from the unusual release pattern the movie has received.
Whatever the case, the emphasis here is clearly on Foster and his performance as Armstrong. Which makes it odd that he doesn’t get more big moments in the trailer and the rest of the campaign. Based on the marketing this looks like half cautionary tale about the dangers of doping and half investigative procedural, but I wish there were more moments here where those two halves met and coalesced into a single compelling narrative.