Over the years, numerous movies about Lance Armstrong have been in the works but never got made. Indeed, one was about to move forward just as he admitted he had doped for his entire career. It’s almost a shame we don’t have a movie from when he was almost universally admired as a hero, so we could compare it to the darker world of The Program.
At the start of the movie Lance (Ben Foster) is an okay but unexceptional cyclist, who few think will ever do anything special. After overcoming testicular cancer, he returns with a passion to win, and knowing the world of cycling is riddled with cheats taking performance-enhancing drugs, he decides he will do the same, enlisting the help of Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) to allow him to set up a ‘Program’ that will help him win, as well as arranging to have a team built around him that will ensure a Tour de France victory.
He soon becomes a champion, capturing the world’s attention thanks to his inspirational cancer story and charisma. However, Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) is incredibly suspicious, especially considering that before his sensational victory Lance had never been any good at mountain stages, but now he was winning them in almost superhuman ways. Nobody wants to listen to Walsh’s party-pooping, and the world of cycling has a conspiracy of silence that prevents the journalist from getting any real evidence.
While Armstrong continues to win over the years, the rumours around him start to swirl, which don’t go away once he’s retired.
Ben Foster puts in a great performance as Armstrong (it’s been reported he even took performance-enhancing drugs himself, under medical supervision, to prepare for the role), but he has a bit of a problem, which is that the movie never really seems to get to grips with who Lance is. At times he seems like a charming warrior, at others a complete monster. He’s charitable but yet utterly selfish. Unfortunately, the movie never really feels like it’s getting under his skin to see how all these pieces fit together. In the accompanying featurettes, the likes of Foster and director Stephen Frears talk about how they view Armstrong, but what they say doesn’t fully come across in the movie.
Frears has had previous success with films that feel like we’re looking at vignettes of a life that build into a portrait of their subject, such as The Queen, but here Armstrong feels too contrary, with relatively few bridges between him being an utterly ruthless liar and his other, more human side. Ultimately it makes it difficult to either empathise or understand him.
The movie isn’t a disaster by a long shot. It’s interesting, with good acting and it does give you a good feel for what happened, why, and how he got away with it for so long. It’s just that while its desire to show the complexity of the situation is admirable, it’s not so good at showing how two seemingly opposite things managed to sit side by side, and there are times where it feels like it’s being contrary for its own sake, whether it fits with the overall truth or not.
The film should be praised for not trying to find ways around Armstrong’s deceit, such as attempting to treat him as a victim of circumstance or someone who got out of his depth. It’s just somewhat odd though that while it’s keen to show how complicated it all was, it actually misses some of the complexity by not fully getting to grips with the people involved.
Overall Verdict: It’ll keep you watching and it’s certainly interesting, but by the end of The Program you’re unlikely to feel you’re unlikely to feel you’re any closer to knowing who Lance Armstrong is.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac