Stephen Frears The Program tells the story of 7 time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong through his rise and fall as the truth about his performance enhancing drug use comes to light.
Ben Foster takes on the role of Lance Armstrong and gives a fantastic performance as the unsympathetic disgraced cyclist but the script doesn’t afford him enough depth to make the story work. There’s mention of his personal life inclusive of wife and children but they are never a part of the story. Foster puts across the ego of the man and the charisma he has when dealing with the public but there’s very little insight into what goes on beneath the surface.
It’s a shame as it starts off well enough with his career starting out with an innocent desire to excel. If done right then Armstrong’s determination to be the best could be shown to be instrumental in his downfall. His cancer comes and goes within a matter of scenes so never quite has the impact as an inspirational force that it should have. It does lead to a touching scene where he comforts a young sufferer but for the most part it is treated on a superficial level. Similarly the consequences of his doping are never fully realised.
Pacing is a large problem in general. It feels that the film is spending its runtime rushing to get to the end of the story without stopping to focus on the important things and how the events relate to the people involved. As such it comes across as a wholly superficial experience.
I do have to applaud the decision to commit to making Lance Armstrong an unlikeable guy given that the film follows him but this is complemented by connecting his fascination with coming out on top to the methods he would use to evade detection by the drug screenings so it becomes almost an exercise in seeing how a cheater continues to get away with winning competitions under false pretences than it is a character study.
While that is a solid idea I would have preferred a more introspective look at the psychology of a man who would go to such lengths to win. Very little is made of how he can justify it beyond the weak “everyone else is doing it” defence. This is something that the narrative makes no attempt to prove or disprove so it feels weak as a motivation as it isn’t explored in any way.
The film was based on a book by journalist David Walsh played here by Chris O’Dowd who was frustrated as he seemed to be the only one suspicious of Armstrong’s meteoric rise to unprecedented success in the sport. Walsh comes and goes from the narrative at random intervals and is missing for so long at one point that I forgot all about his investigation.
Walsh’ investigation would have been the perfect narrative hook for this film and would have allowed Armstrong to be seen from afar on a very superficial level. Chris O’Dowd gave a great performance in this film and proved that he can successfully navigate away from his comedy roots to play dramatic roles. I just wish he had been given more to do rather than show up whenever the plot needed a push.
The rest of the cast were something of a mixed bag. Guillaume Canet as Armstrong’s doping doctor Michele Ferraris is almost cartoonish in his characterisation which robs any scenes he appears in of anything resembling credibility. Jesse Plemons has so little to work with as team-mate Floyd Landis that his appearance in the film feels like a pointless addition.
Perhaps this story is a little too recent and therefore too raw to explore in its entirety but the story of Lance Armstrong should be able to turn into a really compelling drama someday. Regrettably this isn’t the film that the story deserves. The lack of depth to anyone portrayed in this film really lets it down in major ways. Some excellent performances aren’t enough to elevate the substandard script.
I wouldn’t suggest that this is worth watching. There are shades of something worthwhile in there but you have to dig deep to find them. I would say skip this one.