Cyclist Lance Armstrong is a liar. An egomaniac. A delusional celebrity. A jerk. But he’s also a cancer survivor and was an inspiration to thousands before the house of cards eventually came tumbling down.
In The Program, director Stephen Fears (The Queen, Philomena) explores Armstrong’s rise to fame through his historic seven Tour de France victories and the investigation into doping that eventually lead to his downfall.
Ben Foster (Lone Survivor, The Mechanic) plays Armstrong. The likeness is a bit uncanny. We watch as a young Armstrong heads to France for the first time as a young cycler who couldn’t keep up with the European teams that were eventually caught doping. Armstrong is so determined to become the best in the sport that he solicits the help of known dope doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). But when Armstrong is diagnosed with testicular cancer, the career takes a small backstep during his recovery. The sidelines made Armstrong even more determined and within a year he and Ferrari were testing new drugs and new methods of cheating which including blood doping – the injection of oxygenated blood into an athlete before an event in an attempt to enhance athletic performance.
The results were outstanding and Armstrong was not only beating the competition but destroying them. This catches the eye of sports reporter David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who is convinced that Armstrong is less the Superman that people make him out to be and more the product of good chemistry and science. But Walsh is alone in his pursuit of the truth. His publisher is skeptical and his peers alienate Walsh after Armstrong uses his celebrity power to sue and alienate all those associated with a reveal of the truth.
Enter one, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad fame). Floyd is a wide-eyed teammate of Armstrong who immediately tows the line and dopes in an effort to maintain his place within the team. But when Floyd is revealed to have doped after a failed drug test, the wheels begin to come off the Armstrong entourage. Floyd is conflicted with his past and eventually comes clean with the media which only further drops Armstrong’s star.
The film ends with Armstrong’s famous Oprah Winfrey interview where he reveals that he lied and cheated during all 7 Tour wins.
The Program is a showcase for Foster who is spectacular in the lead role. O’Dowd too is impressive as the hounding reporter. But the film as a whole fails to do much else than skim the surface. The documentary The Armstrong Lie goes into detail on just how big of an asshole Armstrong was. He threatened wives of teammates calling them ‘whores’ and ‘drunks’ on record. He threatened and sued newspapers, lied while being a guest speaker at many black tie events and misrepresented his own charity. The Program only slightly details these facts. It casually brings them up or has quick scenes showing the depth of Armstrong’s depravity. But Fears throws too much into the film without focusing on one story. He could have focused on Armstrong’s deplorable character. Or made the film a reporters pursuit of the truth. Instead the kitchen sink of a very detailed story is thrown at viewers and it fails to resonate in a way that it should. Armstrong was a fraud. The entire world was duped and we should be angry and reminded of that anger during this biopic. Instead we get more of a movie-of-the-week style of film that fails to dive deep into the conspiracy and show all the scars left in its wake.
Still, for those not fully up-to-date in the Armstrong story, The Program is a well-acted entry into the rise and fall. It’s just a very involving one.