Flying across the screen like a shot, but falling short with the thud of underwhelming shot put, Lance Armstrong biopic The Program tests positive for dopey drama and performance-enhancing characterizations. The spectacular ascent and implosion of the Armstrong name is framed as a decades-long battle for the soul of cycling, but The Program is really more interested in breaking complicated sports history down to the basic stats and players. It’s a narrative of clear winners, losers, and cheats, with little room for anything in-between.
“It’s not muscles. It’s not lungs. It’s heart,” says Armstrong (Ben Foster), explaining his success in opening narration. If the juxtaposition between the message, and what you know about that man delivering it seems a little heavy-handed, be warned: The Program is just warming up its ironic muscles. Armstrong’s faith in determination and willpower was a nice prescription to give the public, but a misguided one, even before the seven-time Tour de France winner lost his legacy in a wave of asterisks. Throughout The Program, Armstrong’s sweet nothings about the power of perseverance are always contrasted against the less poetic realities of professional sporting: lung capacity volumes, hematocrit counts, and testosterone balances often win-out over any can-do attitude.
As a place to start an investigation into what compels athletes to create the success that genetics doesn’t allow for, it’s a compelling one. Too bad The Program doesn’t have time to do more than a flyby examination of doping in the world of cycling, or Armstrong as its golden boy con artist. Based on sport journalist David Walsh’s book, “Seven Deadly Sins,” The Program takes 20 years of compromise, and dutifully checks them off like the many stages of any tour. With so many events and people taking part in Armstrong’s evolution – from aspiring pro, to cancer survivor, to world champion, to exposed fraud – screenwriter John Hodge has to settle for a racing bike-thin take on the story’s central players, and the larger conspiracy of greatness protecting Armstrong.
The Program makes for a reductive look at the man’s life, but one that at least has an engaging (though rarely layered) villain at its centre. As Armstrong, Foster removes any trace of shame or scruples to the man by minute 20. Choosing Armstrong’s testicular cancer scare in ‘96 as the point of no return, Foster drafts off the thrill of watching a character act with near-absolute absence of moral fiber. By the time he’s in front of a mirror rehearsing the delivery to his most infamous catchphrase (“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.”), Armstrong is a survivor-sociopath worthy of retitling the movie he’s in to Biking Bad.
The speed with which The Program hurtles from scene to scene gives it a lively energy, and director Stephen Frears keeps the movie light on its feet. When Armstrong’s team first tries to acquire the drug EPO at a dispensary, it’s like watching a nervous teenager buy condoms. Keeping the focus strictly on Armstrong’s relationship to the sport, not any actual people, frees Frears to race toward each career milestone, or allegation made by Walsh and others. But when moving at the rapid pace it does, The Program only has time to detail the facts and its filmmaking in strokes of Tour-yellow highlighter.
There’s no guilty charge to watching Armstrong’s deceptions when The Program is always underlining them at every turn. “I beat you, fair and square!” Armstrong tells Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) after winning a game of foosball early in the film, which is the kind of lazy, wink-wink foreshadowing that The Program uses as a crutch. “We are all the author’s of our own life story,” Armstrong later says at a public event, with Frears then flashing back to a vulnerable hospital scene we saw 30 minutes ago that Armstrong recalls in a more heroic light.
The Program hasn’t even hit its bottom for broad subtext when teammate-turned-traitor Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) loudly points out the tragedy that is team bikes being sold to pay for PEDs. As it hurriedly rushes through time and pop-in supporting performances (including Dustin Hoffman for all of maybe three minutes), The Program’s slapdash digestion of history gets matched formally. Fake sponsorship ads featuring Armstrong look like they were thrown together overnight, and leave you wondering if Frears’ real coup here is making the most respectably cast TV-movie not made for TV.
The performances that come along with that cast are fun in their limited capacities, and a lightweight biopic of The Program’s design is always bound to be more disappointing than offensively dull. But we never have a reason to view Armstrong as anything more nuanced than a liar, or find ourselves reminded of the sting his believers felt when the truth finally came out. There’s a final destination, but no goal in The Program, which simply reenacts a sports scandal instead of providing any perspective on it. If everybody already knows the lie, as Leonard Cohen sings over the closing credits, what’s the use in just pointing it out again?
The Program streamlines Armstrong’s career down to a hastily told and mostly hollow sports drama.