Creating entertaining biopics about a universally disgraced figure are a hard sell under that key word of “entertaining.” If they attempt to create sympathy, a duel of alienation and bias can arise. A good, thought-provoking movie has to fearlessly dig deeper. As Van der Rohe is attributed to saying, “the devil is in the details.” Exposing the sordid and untold details of what led to the subject’s defamation is where your film gets interesting. The rise and fall of champion cyclist Lance Armstrong is fertile ground and a fresh wound that has yet to be solved. “The Program,” directed by “Philomena” and “The Queen” Oscar nominee Stephen Frears, pedals uphill in attempting to shine a light on the dark details.
“The Program” is based on the 13-year struggle of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh outlined in his book, “Seven Deadly Sins.” Walsh is portrayed by Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd, playing it straight. He is our tireless observer to Lance Armstrong, played by “3:10 to Yuma” star Ben Foster. In 1999, the Lance Armstrong Walsh meets is a mid-level U.S. cyclist lacking the physical capacity to be a champion on the next tier, an assertion is supported by fellow cyclist and friend Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet of “Inglourious Basterds”).
Unfulfilled by that assessment, Armstrong seeks out a competitive advantage through formerly renowned sports doctor and cycling coach Michele Ferrari, played by Guillaume Canet. Selling success and speaking of superior science from a place of decadence, Ferrari comes across like a devious mad scientist. What started with erythopoietin, better known as EPO, became testosterone regiments, blood exchanges, and techniques to cheat the system.
The title refers to, what the final United States Anti-Doping Agency reports called the “most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program” in their history. After his much celebrated survival from testicular cancer, Lance begins to win every challenge. He forms his own U.S. Postal cycling team with Bruyneel as the coach and the same enhancement program in place for the entire team, including new American up-and-comer Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). Armstrong also aligns with his long-time agent, Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace), to conceive and organize his Livestrong Foundation brand, which becomes a shield of veiled legitimacy and facsimile good will.
Walsh becomes the one man of integrity asking the questions while everyone else is cheering and throwing bouquets at the manufactured triumph of Lance Armstrong. Everyone chooses to see greatness, while Walsh sees a racer that doesn’t match the one he remembers before cancer. He begins the calls for a proper investigation and we know how that turned out.
The initial surface of “The Program” is made to look like a simplistic, formulaic sports film. Excellent cycling race recreations are shot by cinematographer Danny Cohen (“The King’s Speech”) blended with the actual archival footage. The Lance Armstrong we meet is a “I just like to ride my bike” sympathetic hero, the type everyone wants to root for. That polish is very intentional. Typical sports movies lull us into wishing and hoping for triumph. This parallels the real-life universal love brought to Armstrong before the truth was exposed.
When this shiny penny is turned over, the film’s kinetic racing ends and it reveals its dichotomy to dive into the seedy and troubled backstory of drug abuse, rampant doping, investigative journalism, and immense hidden cover-up. The film begins to paint its dark portrait of Lance Armstrong, The Monster, The Manipulator, and The Cheater. The acting ensemble shifts its initial sunniness accordingly, starting with Ben Foster as Armstrong. Foster has always been a twitchy and twisted example of Method acting. To film this role and physical transformation, he undertook the same actual drug regiment as Armstrong. That is impressive, and crazy, dedication.
Foster fits the egotistical creep the film is tying to paint, even if it stretches a little maniacal to make a movie. His “Scarface”-like ruminations, tantrums, and outbursts during private moments in his wealthy mansion and threatening confrontations with other racers on the course feel a step too cheesy in creative license. History now reveals that such villainy may be accurate, but as a film, it’s dialed almost sadistically too tight, a fact not helped tonally by an electronic Alex Heffes musical score with the presence of an electric cello.
While Frears and company deserve credit for tackling this touchy subject and eschewing the sports film formula with a calculated heel turn into investigative journalism, “The Program” does not juggle that shift effectively and digs only skin deep. By the time its final parting coda shot arrives with Lance literally riding off into a sunset alone before an epilogue of revealing post-notes are backed by Leonard Cohen’s blunt and haunting hit “Everybody Knows,” the experience feels and incomplete and unsatisfying as the punishment and comeuppance absent to Armstrong himself. That reaction too may be the point, but maybe this film could have waited a few years to report and distribute the pound of flesh we deserve.
Lesson #1: The science of blood doping— Like a Scorsese crime film pulling back the curtain as to how hoods operated and got away with their crimes, “The Program” shows us an informative glimpse of the detailed process Ferrari, Armstrong, and others did to get an edge. You’ll marvel at its simplicity and duplicity at the same time.
Lesson #2: The classic athletic character flaw of winning at all costs— The film’s portrayal of Lance Armstrong is a guy driven by and addicted to winning by doing whatever it takes not to lose, including breaking the rules and ignoring integrity for himself or the sport. Armstrong is seen as a blind bully to all of his wrongdoings and protected by his carefully manicured image. We’ve seen this mythical flaw of vanity before, yet Armstrong might be the greatest and largest figure to ever take that fall.
Lesson #3: People will buy greatness and ignore flaws— The film is right to force us, and even blame us, as an audience, to look into the mirror at our own previous captivation, fascination, and celebration of Armstrong’s previously heroic success. There are still those today that will side with his greatness and good deeds rather than admitting that all were achieved through blatant lying and cheating. The depth and effect of this huge cover-up is a painful scab to pull off.