In The Program, Ben Foster stars as cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his titles in 2012 following a lengthy doping scandal that culminated with the cyclist admitting his use of performance-enhancing drugs on Oprah.
Most audiences are going to be familiar with this story: you were living under a rock if you missed the daily news coverage of the Armstrong saga, which became the sports world’s biggest doping scandal even though it was pretty late to the game. Steroid scandals have rocked pro sports over the past four decades, and substance abuse in the Tour is almost as old as the race itself.
Journalist David Walsh, who covered Armstrong and the Tour de France over the years for The Sunday Times, was temporarily disgraced after losing a libel suit to Armstrong before the scandal picked up steam and the star later confessed.
The Program, based on Walsh’s 2012 book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, began filming in October 2013. Two years later, after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, it’s hitting cinemas across the globe, though it has yet to secure a US release date.
Adapted by John Hodges (Trainspotting) and directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena), here’s what The Program does right: it’s a detailed and carefully plotted film, journalistic in its approach, that briskly covers all the important events and incidents in this story in a (relatively) short amount of time.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Armstrong scandal, The Program is the perfect overview. Even for those with a basic knowledge of the events, the film does a great job of condensing two decades worth of this complex storyline into an easily digestible two-hour film.
I think, however, most audiences are going to be asking this: what new does it have to bring to the table? What’s the perspective here that we didn’t get three years ago?
The answer, unfortunately, is nada. The Program is rigidly adherent to presenting nothing but the widely-accepted facts of the case, faithfully recreating a series of events without offering any real insight that we wouldn’t get from a news report, and giving us little rooting interest; Armstrong is neither a hero nor villain, just the flawed human being who undertook these controversial actions.
That’s not necessarily bad thing, but the film also falls short dramatically; because the movie is focused so much more on the story than its characters, there’s little depth to either Armstrong (who meets his wife and gets married in a 15-second montage) or journalist Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd in an unfortunately one-note performance).
Foster, it must be said, is eerily good as Armstrong. He resembles the cyclist not just in appearance and attitude, but also the non-tangibles; that above-all-else determination to win, which serves as the catalyst for the events of the film, is innate within his performance.
The supporting cast is also strong, with Lee Pace as Armstrong’s agent Bill Stapleton and Guillaume Canet as the sports doctor who initiates Armstrong on the titular program.
Jesse Plemons enters the film late in the game as whistleblower Floyd Landis, but his characterization is the closest thing the film has to real conflict. While Armstrong and Walsh are entirely one-sided in mindset, and lack anything resembling a character arc, Landis’ inner turmoil finally seems to give the film some substance.
In what amounts to a two-scene cameo, Dustin Hoffman appears as Bob Hamman, world Bridge champion and president of SCA Promotions, who sued Armstrong for $5 million in winnings payouts after allegations of doping came up.
In twenty years, I think audiences will watch The Program and come away perfectly satisfied with the matter-of-fact coverage of events (dramatically, though, the film isn’t likely to improve). But three years later, the facts of this case alone are not enough.
This movie could have been about something, rather than just the facts; it’s a sports story, after all, and not a police procedural. The closest comparison I can make is Moneyball, which worked brilliantly because it didn’t just show what Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane had accomplished, it got inside his head and made a rallying call for David vs. Goliath and old vs. new issues that are still going on in MLB.
Doping is still a huge problem in professional sports – one that isn’t black & white, and one that isn’t likely to go away any time soon. The Program could have tackled that issue. Instead it limits its field of vision to Armstrong and Armstrong alone.