The Program

Ben Foster in The Program (Black Sheep Productions)
Ben Foster in The Program (Black Sheep Productions)

What’s it about:

The rise and fall of (in)famous cyclist Lance Armstrong during his years of participating in the Tour de France, and the true story of one of the biggest doping scandals in sports history

What we thought:

Although the sport might not be too popular with audiences outside of Europe, Lance Armstrong made global headlines due to his legendary status in the field of sport and charity work and, ultimately, his involvement in one of the most famous doping scandals in cycling history. Due to the already elaborate documentation of these events, I hoped The Program would provide a deeper look into what made Lance Armstrong do what he did, and tell a true character story of the man that went from global hero to zero. Unfortunately, the movie opted for a docudrama instead of a biopic, and ultimately crumbles under its lack of direction.

The movie, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) basically functions as a summary of events that start at the beginning of Lance’s career in Europe, until his moment of confession of persistent drug use after retiring from his victorious cycling life. I doubt I’m spoiling any plot points here, as this story can be assumed to be general knowledge.

Lance Armstrong, played very convincingly by Ben Foster, is portrayed as a true villain. Manipulative, narcissistic, and uncompromisingly competitive, he’s never meant to get the audience’s sympathy. Alongside, we are introduced to David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), a sports journalist who tried to expose Lance during his career by searching for evidence of his use of illegal substances to secure his victories. Halfway through, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) enters the scene as a supporting member of Lance’s cycling team, and ultimately the lead to the discovery of the drug program.

The problem with the Program is that it never manages to go deeper into Lance’s character, and why he became who he is. Contrary to Floyd Landis, who is shown to struggle with his career decisions and religious background, Lance is never really given a backstory. Sure, we get to see him getting married in a tacky montage of less than a minute, and practice his lies in front the mirror to allow a little more depth, but it’s mostly him doing drugs and winning races, leading up to the inevitable conclusion. This makes me wonder who this overview is made for, especially considering this exact story was already told in The Armstrong Lie, a great documentary from 2013.

The positives come from the lead acting performances themselves. Ben Foster as Armstrong is fantastic throughout, and Plemons delivers a superb performance as the conflicted Landis. Chris O’Dowd creates great sympathy as a convincing David Walsh and the trio do well with the occasional tacky script and mediocre supporting cast.

Ultimately, the movie fails to deliver something new, and its on-the-surface approach hardly provides enough excitement to really engage us in the story of Lance Armstrong. The Program drowns itself by not allowing any insight into the effects of a life lived through fame and infamy, yet only tells us a story that most of us already know.