Film Review: The Program

Stephen Frears’ efficient dissection of Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong’s dizzying rise and fall is helped by a solid cast but hindered by a clinical script.
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There is almost no other modern athletic hero beside Lance Armstrong who was more lionized in his success and more scorned in his downfall. His rise to fame was the kind of story that sports journalists live for: A previously good but unremarkable biker doesn’t just beat a cancer diagnosis, he follows it up by winning one Tour de France after another in unprecedented fashion. His ignominious fall from grace was a story that any journalist would want: All the while that he was winning those races, telling his inspirational story to the crowds embracing his charity’s never-give-up survivor ethos, and insisting that he was utterly clean, Armstrong was not just rigorously doping but threatening to ruin anybody who might expose it.

In theory, this explosive and Shakespearean mix of hubris and pathos should be able to turn just about any narrative adaptation into dramatic gold. But unlike Alex Gibney’s authoritative and damning 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, Stephen Frears’ The Program can’t deliver a compelling portrait of the furiously driven and deeply compromised athlete at its center.

Like many of his characters, Ben Foster’s Armstrong is a guarded and slightly menacing presence. Slight, underpowered, and aware of it, Armstrong carries a Texas-sized chip on his shoulder that arguably influences his eagerness to subvert the rules once he figured out how. The Ahab chasing this white whale is journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), whose just-as-relentless reporting on Armstrong finally broke the story.

Early on, Walsh and Armstrong play a seemingly friendly game of foosball that ends with Armstrong winning and insisting that Walsh honor their bet by shaving his beard. It’s an effective, if not precisely subtle, way of illustrating just how seriously Armstrong took any competition. A more effective component of that scene comes in a quick dialogue exchange where Walsh, likely trying to get some colorful filigree for his story, asks Armstrong what he loves about the sport. The response, “I just love to ride my bike,” along with Foster’s blank and slightly confused stare, says everything the film has to say about Armstrong’s inner life.

The surprisingly no-frills script by John Hodge, who is usually in charge of delivering baroque scenarios for Danny Boyle (Trance, Trainspotting), doesn’t waste time. We’re barely a few minutes in, and Armstrong has already made the case to his teammates that he’s done losing. Seeing what Dr. Michele Ferrari (a quietly villainous Guillaume Canet) is doing for another team, Armstrong declares, “I want to be on whatever program they’re on.” Up to that point, Armstrong was seen as a good racer with the wrong physique for a champion; all the training in the world wouldn’t get him to the finish line fast enough. Once he begins using Ferrari’s prescribed hormones in 1995, though, Armstrong is rocketing to the head of the line.

By the time Armstrong starts winning one Tour de France after another, his steely and disciplined racing team is presented as almost more of a well-organized clandestine blood-doping operation than athletic endeavor. Frears threads actual race footage into his own, with inserts of syringes and IVs highlighting the lengths the team has to go to avoid the race’s mobile blood-testing unit: “the vampires.”

From that point on, The Program becomes ever less the portrait of a controversial champion than a scattershot cautionary tale about the dangers of believing in miracles. Walsh rails against his fellow writers for being too afraid of losing access to tell the truth about how widespread doping is in bicycling. (Although the film notes a couple times that “everybody” is doing the same as Armstrong, there are times when it seems to follow the Eurocentric view that this interloping American braggart corrupted a supposedly pristine sport.) Armstrong, flipping from public hero to private villain, goes from visiting children dying of cancer to warning a bicyclist against testifying about doping: “I have the money and the power to destroy you.”

The hollowness of Armstrong’s victories should make for a compelling film, as should the tragic dimension of the relationship with his loyal but ultimately betrayed team member Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). Further undercutting this potential is Hodge’s habit of simply linking scenes in chronological sequence without organically connecting them. Some individual scenes register, but The Program feels ultimately more akin to box-ticking than character-powered drama.

And in the end, it’s only bicycling, after all…

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