We all remember Jeff Goldblum muttering to himself, “must go faster, must go faster” while being pursued by dinosaurs (and later, aliens). What happens when a man lives his life solely in the pursuit of going faster, at any cost? Lance Armstrong (Foster), having defeated cancer and becoming the darling of the professional cycling world, is admired and adored the world over, both for his multiple Tour de France championship titles and his charity work. David Walsh (O’Dowd), a sports journalist with The Sunday Times in the UK, begins to suspect that Armstrong may be using performance-enhancing drugs, despite Armstrong’s repeated and empathic claims to the contrary. Sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Canet) has devised “the program”, a sophisticated doping regimen that Armstrong and all the cyclists on his team are put on. The illicit drug use is enabled by Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stalpleton (Pace), and the team’s directeur sportif, Johann Bruyneel (Menochet). This weighs on the conscience of Floyd Landis (Plemons), a promising cyclist recruited onto the team, as Walsh gets ever closer to uncovering the devastating truth.
The Program is inspired by David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit Of Lance Armstrong. The film’s approach is that of a David vs. Goliath tale, with an honest journalist battling the odds to expose the deceit of a nigh-untouchable superstar athlete. As such, it is as much an “uncovering the scandal” thriller as it is a biopic, with sports in place of politics. Seeing as that’s the starting point, this was never going to be a particularly objective or balanced account of Armstrong’s life and, to an extent, that’s fine. Director Stephen Frears, whose recent credits include The Queen and Philomena, is an experienced filmmaker and The Program is assembled with style and panache. As a takedown of a false idol, it is aggressive and damning but, as a thoughtful investigative drama, it lacks clear-eyed credibility.
The movie’s pacing is appropriately brisk, Valerio Bonelli’s editing making it all quite a heady trip. Screenwriter John Hodge ensures events unfold coherently and efficiently. Even if one isn’t into pro-cycling, The Program is likely to hold one’s attention and it’s a dynamic, even thrilling film. However, it doesn’t take much to step back and go, “Wait a second, just how Hollywood-ed up is this thing?”. The Lance Armstrong story has all the elements that make for a compelling true story: deceit, betrayal and conspiracy on a very public stage, but all those elements feel drummed-up and slightly inauthentic here. Furthermore, it’s all ground that’s already been covered in Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Armstrong Lie. This reviewer was hoping the film would explore the effect that Armstrong’s deception had on his family and others close to him in more detail, but The Program trundles down a different path. Armstrong meets his wife Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward), marries her in the next scene, and she’s never actually seen again, since that would slow things down.
Armstrong, as portrayed by Foster, isn’t just a villain; he’s a supervillain. The film depicts the cyclist as a man seduced by and obsessed with victory, a master manipulator and a detestable, unrepentant fraud. With an inspiring, carefully constructed public persona hiding sneering malice, giving rousing speeches and comforting children in cancer wards while threatening any and all who would give away his secret, Armstrong is basically Lex Luthor. Foster puts in an electrifying, passionate performance, but it is one almost entirely devoid of nuance and altogether too difficult to take seriously. On hearing of Walsh’s accusations, Armstrong bellows, “I am Lance Armstrong and he is f***ing no-one!” as he strides down a grand staircase in his mansion. Doing a spot of method acting that we’ll neither condone nor condemn, Foster actually took performance-enhancing drugs under medical supervision to better get under Armstrong’s skin.
O’Dowd’s Walsh is a standard-issue “dogged reporter” hero, dedicated to his family and to his profession, persistent in hunting the truth to the bitter end. The character is so idealised that it’s impossible to overlook the fact that the real-life Walsh’s account of events was the primary source for the film and, if Armstrong is a supervillain, then that must make Walsh a superhero. O’Dowd is likeable without trying too hard and, for an actor better known for playing the goofy schlub in many a comedy, he puts in a solid dramatic turn.
Canet is spectacularly over the top in this, playing Dr. Michele Ferrari like a mad scientist in a monster movie, exaggerated accent and all. “No longer confined to the earth, now we can learn to fly,” he intones, squirting droplets of Erythropoietin from a syringe. Plemons, truly coming into his own as a capable character actor, is very sympathetic as Floyd Landis, who was raised a devout Mennonite and whose father strongly discouraged his pursuit of cycling. Dustin Hoffman makes a brief appearance as Bob Hamman, the founder of SCA Promotions, who sought the repayment of $10 million in prize money after discovering Armstrong was doping. In what is likely a sly reference to The Graduate, The Lemonheads’ cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs. Robinson is used in the film.
There’s a fun, bitingly cynical scene in the film, in which Armstrong and his teammates are having the performance-enhancing drugs administered to them and are discussing who might play Armstrong in a movie. Matt Damon is out and Jake Gyllenhaal, whose name Armstrong mispronounces, is in. It’s a good thing Hollywood waited. The Program isn’t all that incisive or searing, more an entertaining diversion than awards-contender prestige pic, but it is a rip-roaring ride.
Summary: Slick and entertaining but ultimately superficial, Ben Foster’s delicious albeit obvious lead performance keeps this biopic on track.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars