Stephen Frears helms this dramatised account of the rise and fall of professional cyclist Lance Armstrong (superbly played by Ben Foster) and the tenacious Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who campaigned to investigate the Tour de France icon. While the story is incredible and the performances and direction are strong, the overall product is somewhat lacking, especially when compared with previous attempts to chronicle the events of the scandal.
The first half of the film focuses almost entirely on an abridged depiction of Armstrong’s early middling success, his initial small-scale dabbling with dope and his battle against testicular cancer. Foster – who bears an eerie resemblance to Armstrong – delivers a rounded and immersive performance that is both shockingly monstrous and engagingly human. When Armstrong is told that no matter how hard he trains he will always be held back by his physical limits and that the only way to overcome this is to turn to doping, it is Foster’s performance that captures the cyclist’s eager desperation – a desperation that is equally endearing and horrifying. He creates a representation of Armstrong that emphasises competitive ambition, pure adrenaline, making him appear both empathetic and unnerving, skilfully conveying the hubris of the man. Just as in real life, one sympathises with his plight and his miraculous recovery before slowly recognizing the greed and malice that emerges from becoming too deeply involved in the eponymous program.
In the background of all this, the delightful Chris O’Dowd plays the only person apparently not sucked in by the astonishing success story that was Armstrong’s comeback. Unfortunately, this is all we really see of either Walsh or O’Dowd, however, his character turns out to be more incidental to the plot than may at first be believed and less developed than desired for an actor of O’Dowd’s standard. While on the one hand, Walsh’s pre-emptive and controversial book exposing the links between Armstrong and the doping program, devised by Dr. Michele Ferrari (a hammy Guillaume Canet), is credited as having ‘inspired’ the film, a stronger debt is clearly owed to Alex Gibney’s brilliant 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie. Indeed, if audience members have seen the latter film, they may suffer a sense of déjà vu.
This is itself part of a wider problem with The Program. The revelations about Armstrong are still relatively recent, well-known and explored, allowing for a less gripping narrative than director Stephen Frears may have hoped for. To compensate for this, there are plenty of hard-hitting scenes involving intravenous injections and fast-cut editing to create a sense of atmosphere, but as there are only so many needles and races one can watch before getting restless, this soon becomes a mixture of excess and tedium. What is more, in an effort to include as much of the story as possible, there are some scenes that go on too long and several characters introduced with little or no consequence. Dustin Hoffman cameos as insurance executive Bob Hannam, who exposes some of Armstrong’s shady dealings but the character is so bland and his performance so uninspired, that he seems only to be there to pad out the run time and pick up a pay cheque.
While Frears’s film is well-made and functional, it has the tendency to tie itself in knots in its attempts to involve all the key players and include as much information as possible for the audience, information that viewers will either have seen in the recent Gibney documentary already, or will remember from the contemporary media coverage of the scandal. Perhaps Frears’s choice for the end credits song – Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows – was more apt than he intended.
Ultimately, the end of the track is always in sight and, despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, the race is not as exciting as it needs to be to carry the audience across the finish line.
Images sourced from The Program film, StudioCanal