The most surprising thing about “The Program”—a docudrama on the rise and fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong—is how narratively pedestrian it is. One would have expected something more insightful and gripping from a cinematic “dream team” like writer John Hodge (“Trainspotting”) and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), not to mention Ben Foster. But in the event they manage to bring intensity to the picture, but not a great deal more. Perhaps the story is simply too familiar; perhaps Alex Gibney’s documentary (“The Armstrong Lie”) is too fresh in the memory. But whatever the case, this “Program” feels like territory that’s already been well-trod (or ridden).
That’s not to say it doesn’t do a reasonably good job of presenting the story from Armstrong’s first Tour de France in 1993 through his tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013, though it ignores all that preceded those years in its subject’s life. Hodge and Frears depict the basics of the tale in brisk, energetic strokes, with Danny Cohen’s hectic camerawork, Valerio Bonelli’s sharp editing (employing swift montages, many with graphics) and Alex Heffes’ propulsive score all adding to a sense of excitement that mimics the races themselves. The cycling action is nicely caught, with Foster looking every inch the strong rider.
But that isn’t the only element of his performance that’s impressive. Foster brings his usual steely-eyed determination to the role, usually with an underlying threatening vibe. But he doesn’t add much positive shading to the part, even in the sections of the picture dealing with Armstrong’s victory over cancer and his charity work afterward. The point of the telling, however, is to portray Armstrong as a man whose self-confidence knew no bounds and who was willing to use very sharp elbows against his foes—and to abandon friends when it suited his purpose—and Foster certainly doesn’t shy away from presenting him as a dark, enigmatic soul. (There’s an amusing moment in the film when it’s debated by the US Postal Team who should play Lance on screen, with Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned as possibilities. The latter might have pulled it off—just think “Southpaw”—but Damon would have been a stretch.)
Jesse Plemons also does an excellent job as Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis, who was drawn into Armstrong’s doping circle but whose ultimate decision to turn informant—a critical nail in the coffin of Lance’s reputation—represented a journey in many respects more intriguing than Armstrong’s own. Good supporting turns also come from Guillaume Canet as Michele Ferrari, the oily doctor who confected the drug regimen (the program of the title) that Armstrong and his team followed; Lee Pace as Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s agent and sometimes enforcer; and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Hamman, the risk assessment specialist whose firm got Armstrong on the record under oath in a way that would later doom him.
The real second lead in the script, however, belongs to Chris O’Dowd as David Walsh, the Sunday Times reporter whose dogged pursuit of rumors about Armstrong’s doping—though it brought on lawsuits against the paper—was ultimately instrumental in his eventual downfall. “The Program” turns out to be not only a biopic about the cyclist, but an encomium to solid journalism, and in all honesty one has to say that in comparison to a film like “Spotlight,” it’s much less successful in that regard. It’s understandable that Hodge, using Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” as the basis of his treatment, should have decided to place such emphasis on his investigations. But the shuffling between the two men’s stories never carries the emotional weight the picture is striving for, though O’Dowd brings a shambling charm to the character.
The result is a film that isn’t bad, but despite its virtues comes across as redundant, like a cable-TV retelling of true-life episode that has already been dealt with all too extensively by the media. If the Armstrong story is something you want to learn about on film, Gibney’s documentary remains the first choice.