First screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of last year, Stephen Frears’ The Program originally looked like it could be one of the 2015/2016 awards season’s contenders. The right ingredients appeared to be there: It’s a sporting biopic about a disgraced American icon, starring an underrated method actor who’d gone to great lengths to play the subject, made by a filmmaker whose previous feature received multiple Oscar nominations just the year before. And yet here we are, greeting the Lance Armstrong movie in March, a month after it already debuted on DirecTV.
Given all the project had going for it, The Program is really only watchable but ultimately lightweight fare, briskly taking us from Armstrong’s beginnings as a nobody athlete, through his battle with cancer, and on to his illegally procured rise as world champion and his eventual downfall. All this without ever really offering us much insight into the man.
This is no fault of Ben Foster’s, who, as Armstrong, makes an art of imitation to give the performance of his career. The physical resemblance is already there, but Foster goes further in nailing the wily Texan’s manner and speech patterns for a downright eerie realization. Going so far as to ingest performance-enhancing drugs to get into the superstar cyclist’s headspace, Foster captures the hollow charm, the ruthless ambition, the almost sociopathic calm under pressure. The Program should have offered the actor his big breakout, but screenwriter John Hodge scuppers his film by failing to make its great tragi-villain the centerpiece of his own movie.
Hodge’s mistake is to grant Chris O’Dowd’s David Walsh (the Sunday Times journalist who suspected and investigated Armstrong) leading man duties. The film transofrms from a biopic into a procedural around the half-hour mark, with Walsh the dogged sleuth seeking to bring down Armstrong’s crook high on the life of crime. It’s an interesting angle to take, but it means we spend the film thereon largely by Walsh’s side, leaving Armstrong—The Program’s most intriguing figure—regrettably distant.
Frears stacks his cast with fine actors, including the always excellent Jesse Plemons, bringing an otherwise absent warmth as Armstrong team-mate Floyd Landis, and Guillaume Canet, clearly enjoying himself as flamboyant doping king and Armstrong mentor Dr. Michele Ferrari. But not even a performer with the likable qualities of Chris O’Dowd can make the one-dimensionally driven Walsh an interesting protagonist, and unlike the recently Oscar-minted Spotlight, The Program flat out fails to put the excitement into investigative journalism.
As a team, DoP Danny Cohen and composer Alex Heffes help decide The Program’s tone. Together they bring a paranoid thriller sensibility to the film, Cohen adding shadow and Dutch angles to his typically rich, naturalistic photography while Heffes provides increasingly urgent, nervy strings. They appear to have more focus than Hodge and director Frears, who find themselves distracted by unnecessary subplots and seemingly can’t decide whether they want to create a straightforward biopic or a true-crime drama. Undoubtedly the most focused artist in the mix is Foster. His performance is so uncanny it feels like we’re peaking behind the curtain, privy to the more damning private moments of Armstrong’s, moments that no documentary has ever been able to show us.
For the first time, we see Armstrong hooked up to body-altering solutions and diluting his blood with bags of water for impromptu drugs tests. There’s a casual body horror element to The Program, and it goes beyond what the sportsmen put themselves through behind the scenes: the formerly beefy Armstrong returning to the field emaciated post-cancer and being told he’s now the right size to become a world class cyclist; the Mennonite Landis on his first Tour away binging like an addict on coffee, forbidden back home by his religion; retired racer and Ferrari accomplice Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) happily gorging himself out of shape after years of strict dietary regimens. The film is obsessed with how some abuse their bodies in search of fulfilment.
Still, The Program’s focus on just one side of Armstrong—on his secret criminal life—ignores the fact that there’s so much more that’s ripe for exploration. We’re shown only glimpses of Armstrong outside of the sport, see little of his marriage and home life, and are offered just brief glances at his philanthropic work and his relationship with fame. There has now been two documentaries and one feature film on Armstrong, and still we haven’t gotten a definitive portrait. If you look hard enough you can find it somewhere in the mix of The Armstrong Lie, Stop at Nothing and now The Program. Or, you can just keep waiting for the day that the one great Lance Armstrong movie finally comes.
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: John Hodge
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Dustin Hoffman, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet
Release Date: March 18, 2016