If there’s anything Hollywood loves, it’s a rags to riches story. The only thing it likes better is the polar opposite: a fall from grace. The story of cycling champion Lance Armstrong’s descent from hero to top heel due to a doping scandal has all of the ingredients to make an incredibly incisive, razor sharp story about athletics, celebrity, media, and more. It had everything. And yet Stephen Frears’ “The Program” offers absolutely zero insight into Armstrong, who he was, or why he did what he did. It doesn’t even offer up a compelling look at his cycling career, which begs the question: Why does this movie even exist?
It exists to give a platform to Ben Foster, one of the most underrated actors working today. It’s unfortunately rare to find him in a lead role with this much potential, and yet the screenplay by John Hodge (Trance) offers him very little to sink his teeth into. The film begins in the ’90s before Armstrong is…well, Lance Armstrong, when he’s still a fresh-faced cyclist with a hunger to win and a sunny outlook on the sport. He’s still clean, basically. But after being told repeatedly that he doesn’t have the right body type to be a winner, Armstrong turns to sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) for a little bit of help. He begins by taking the drug Erythropoietin (or EPA), and it helps him gain his first significant wins. Just as his career was taking off, Armstrong was struck by testicular cancer that put everything on hold.
If Armstrong is known for anything, beyond being a liar and cheat, it’s his desire to win. That drive gets him through brutal chemotherapy and the loss of a testicle. When he’s recovered, he only wants to be champion more, turning back to Ferrari to help him do it. He assembles a team led by bullying manager Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) to protect him as he wins Tour de France after Tour de France, all while on Ferrari’s illegal doping regiment, which they call simply “The Program”. But Armstrong’s actions catch the eye of cycling enthusiast and journalist Dylan Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who has been a fan of his since the beginning. His curiosity begins the investigations that would ultimately bring Armstrong down.
Here’s the thing: most of this is swept through in about 30 minutes, with the film looking like a brief PBS documentary on Armstrong, not a feature-length biopic. We catch brief glimpses of key moment; Armstrong’s victories, the cancer, drugs, suspicion, more drugs, betrayal, and finally it all goes up in smoke. There’s very little attempt to connect the viewer with Armstrong’s motivation, or to engage us with him or his supporters. That includes the under-utilized Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis, who was key to exposing Armstrong as a fraud. There are characters who pop up in one scene, made to seem important, then simply vanish. Armstrong’s wife is one such character. Why introduce her at all?
It suggests Frears and Hodge had no earthly idea what kind of story they wanted to tell about Armstrong, just that they wanted to make a movie about him while the time was right. Well, the time wasn’t right and “The Program” definitely isn’t the right film. Perhaps it’s time to just close the book on Armstrong and let him fade into infamy where he belongs.