A couple of exhilarating cycling scenes, and a pretty solid lead performance, does not a good movie make. Not when you’ve got director Stephen Frears at the helm. That sounds meaner than it’s meant to be; “Philomena” is perfectly fine for what it is, as is “The Queen.” Though, now more than ever, I’m experiencing major withdrawal for the Frears of 10-15 years ago, the one who brought us “Dirty Pretty Things” and “High Fidelity.” In “The Program,” which covers the infamous Lance Armstrong scandal, the polished safety we’ve come to expect from the British director collides into its subject matter, and ends up with legs too scraped and bruised to stand on. With practically zero biographical insight into the man behind the cyclist, this Lance Armstrong feels barely three-dimensional, which is strange considering he’s a real person. Blame it on a film that ticks the necessary boxes with the same perfunctory acumen a warehouse employee has while going through an inventory list.
Ben Foster plays Armstrong, and continues to prove why he’s one the most underrated actors working today. He is the biggest reason “The Program” has any velocity, but with Frears’ systematic direction and John Hodge‘s rudimentary screenplay applying the breaks, the film rarely gains any traction. It starts out in the early 90s, when Armstrong and Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) have a brief interview over a game of foosball. We get an early taste for Armstrong’s hunger to win, but it’s not long before he’s told by fellow cyclist Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) and sports doc Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) that his body isn’t made for winning in this sport. The natural way, of course. Successfully encouraging his fellow teammates to start taking the performance enhancer Erythropoietin (EPA) with him, Lance gets to his first win. And then the cancer hits.
Losing one testicle and battling through vicious chemotherapy treatment, he gets out of the hospital and seeks out Ferrari. His desire to win in this sport has only increased while in recovery, and he agrees to be Ferrari’s guinea pig in order to enhance his athletic performance. He convinces Bruyneel to be his new manager, and lead their team (but, really, just him) to victory in the sport’s coveted Tour de France. Walsh, an avid admirer of Armstrong’s tenacity, keeps cheerleading in the press office until he notices his hero using breaks at a peculiar stage of the race. This sparks the investigation that has, among other things, led to this film.
Those who have followed Armstrong’s career and recall the media frenzy over his record-breaking achievements, perhaps even had one of those Livestrong bracelets before finding out what a liar he was, will be able to summarize “The Program” in one, three-lettered, word. “Yup.” Frears and Hodge (the latter who, by the way, has “Trainspotting” and “The Beach” on his resume, so not sure what his excuse is) take Walsh’s book (“Seven Deadly Sins”) and make an hour and three quarter newsreel out of it. Lance loses, takes drugs, wins, gets cancer, survives, takes more drugs, wins more, starts a charity. The boxes go tick, tick, tick with minimal engagement into any motives or desires beyond a few “I love winning” scenes. The depiction of Ferrari, for example, is comical for all the wrong reasons. Partly due to Canet’s hammy take and partly due to his treatment as some super-villain who plays with science and quotes the Bible. Seriously? The only characters who feel like real people, and for whom emotional investment is justified, are Walsh and latecomer Floyd Landis (portrayed by the excellent Jesse Plemons), but we get precious little time with them.
There’s a moment when Lance meets a woman at one of his motivational speeches, asks her if she likes pizza and bicycles, and marries her in the next scene. We never see her again. It’s not important to the story that “The Program” is telling, perhaps, but then why is it in there at all? Whatever the reason, it’s a good indication of why this is bad storytelling. There is no man behind this portrait of Lance Armstrong, just image. A vacuum exists where personality should be. All credit goes to Ben Foster for squeezing the most out of such a thankless role, especially when he nails a couple of final scenes in sensationally subtle fashion. They’re powerful enough to almost make one forgive Frears’ and Hodge’s half-measured characterization up until that point.
The scandalous program itself is enough to keep one from walking away or switching off entirely, but let’s not make the mistake of congratulating the film for that. Aside from Foster’s determined portrayal, and one excellent exchange about Jake Gyllenhaal and “Donnie Darko,” the film’s entertainment value barely compares to Lance Armstrong’s actual career. Needless expository dialogue, tacky stylization that doesn’t add nearly enough pep as it wants to, and insecure direction that would’ve profited from a couple of risks, ensures that “The Program,” much like its subject, is not a legitimate winner. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.