It was only a matter of time before the life of disgraced Tour de France champion and cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong, was brought to the silver screen in a fictionalized drama. Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen) and starring Ben Foster (The Mechanic), The Program employs a semi-documentary style that tries to present events in a factual manner, although it’s unable to avoid questioning the underlining concerns of the story’s purpose or overall necessity.
Focusing on events set out over more than a decade, The Program follows Armstrong’s (Foster) rise to fame as he won seven Tour de France championships and his eventual downfall from using performance-enhancing drugs. Born with a physicality that would play against him ever becoming a champion, Armstrong seemed likely to never achieve such great feats in the sport. But after being diagnosed with testicular cancer and facing near-death, the cyclist becomes obsessive towards winning and looks to the controversial Italian physician, Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), for a program that would allow him to physically peak by using a cocktail of illegal drugs. He quickly finds success, though it catches the eye of journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), puts him under scrutiny from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and has him facing the jealousy of fellow teammate, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons).
Foster does a brilliant job of capturing the weathered look and calm calculation of Armstrong, but he shines most when the walls begin to close in, bringing such intensity that it crosses the realm into an almost creepy depiction. Ultimately, though, it’s John Hodge’s screenplay that lets down his performance, unable (or unwilling) to provide anything more to the character than his obsession with winning and the fact he was a cancer survivor, although there are hints of layers when Armstrong’s charity work is brought to light. The film purposely follows Armstrong so that we’re given first-hand insight into his actions, rather than externally from the perspective of Walsh’s investigation, yet wastes the opportunity to engage the character with other facets of his life, only strictly concerned with doping-related events.
The film also falls short in presenting Armstrong as either a suffering hero that’s caught in his own fixation to win, the anti-hero whose villainous deeds still warrant audience affection, or even as just a plain villain. Instead, there’s an apparent mix of all three, with the story switching back and forth at will, which hinders the character and the narrative overall, and seems to sideline Walsh, the film’s one white knight. O’Dowd plays him with a charming resolve for the truth, although somewhat more concerned with his own validation, but his performance is overshadowed by Plemons, who makes the most of his time as the team-mate turned exposer, and is the closest the film gets to presenting a character arc complicated enough for a feature film. There are also appearances by Dustin Hoffman and Lee Pace, though both are used in a fairly limited capacity and are left with little to do.
Having said this, as Armstrong and his troop of merry followers go to extraordinary lengths to dodge even the most invasive of drug tests, it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for the cheaters to get away with their dastardly deeds. There’s something interesting in seeing exactly how Armstrong was able to get away with evading capture in what was most likely the greatest doping scandal of our time, and potentially ever, yet beyond this, the films offers little else to entertain. The film skims over most of Armstrong’s life outside of cycling, and while it may not be the main focus, without it, the story seems relegated to a single emotional dimension.
Based on Walsh’s book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, and the USADA’s investigative report into the doping, there’s a clear avoidance of proceeding into territory that’s speculative in both his professional and personal life. With the film spanning his entire career and with little fat to trim narrative wise, it would be easy to see why his life off the racing track was avoided, but as a consequence, there’s not much on offer that hasn’t been explored before in documentaries like Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie. The most disappointing part is left for last though, with limited time spent wrapping up the aftermath of the doping scandal, which is undoubtedly the most interesting part of Armstrong’s journey. Ending the story on a vague note suggests neither a truly delusional man or a man having learned his lesson.
Foster’s performance is captivating enough to entertain from beginning to finish and the methods undertaken by Armstrong to be the best will shock many once seen, all in all warranting at least one viewing of The Program.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10