When it was discovered that Lance Armstrong had been taking performance-enhancing drugs when he won his several Tour de France medals, there must have been some exterior impact on people in his life. Or even an impact upon himself. Stephen Frears’s The Program is not about any of that. Lacking humanity for its main character, the film plays as a hatefully written overview of Armstrong’s career minus all the portions of his life that would make him look decent.
The Program is as conventional as biopics can be. The film follows Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) from right when he decides to start using Erythropoietin (or EPO) to when the world finally finds out hes been using it. What are his motivations for using EPO? Merely to win. Why does he want to win? He doesn’t want to lose. If that sounds like a good enough explanation to completely vilify someone and gloss over the fact that they have a family and got married, then by all means, The Program is right for you.
If you’re making a biopic with the intention of making someone out to look terrible, you cannot hint at the fact that he has a family and then ignore it completely. What you do in that case, if you truly want to make no attempt at objectivity, is just cut any mention of a family out of the film. Someone loved Armstrong enough to have children with him? By this film’s logic, it makes no sense that Armstrong would ever have a family because he doesn’t care about anything other than winning and cycling. When Armstrong is seen doing good deeds such as his Livestrong campaign, its displayed as manipulative. Yet once the film finally gets to the point where everyone knows he is doping, it ends. The ending to The Program comes in biopic-standard endnotes that just explain what happened to each character you’ve met through the movie. The fundamental issue with the film is that its main character has no depth to him.
The problem is not with Foster, who gives a great performance as Armstrong. Instead, it is with Frears and screenwriter John Hodge. The script has great lines and some good scenes, but is frustratingly shallow. When it starts to delve into the systemic problems with the cycling sports industry, things finally get interesting for all of five minutes. The film could have potentially explored the impact that Armstrong’s doping had on the entire industry, but it chooses to end right once its discovered that he doped.
I’m obviously flabbergasted as I write this review, and can hardly contain how annoyed I am by the gall of this film to be what it is. There are only two characters with any real nuance to them and that’s David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) and Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). Both actors are really good, and while Walsh is ultimately sidelined for a lot of the film, he still proves a worthwhile foil to Armstrong. Landis is one of the more complicated characters, as he struggles with being a great cyclist (probably better than Armstrong) but having to take EPO and make sure Armstrong wins every Tour de France.
What angers me so much is that Frears actively makes this film worse than it is. Foster’s performance is so well done that he almost ignites a spark of humanity within his portrayal of Armstrong. What Frears does is make sure everything that Foster does has an undercurrent of spite in it. The Program is such a hateful movie that it becomes boringly vitriolic.
The largest complaint I have is that the movie ends where it should have begun. It doesn’t hide the fact that Armstrong does drugs, but it also never really seems like it cares about him at all anyways. I’m not entirely sure what it cares about other than to re-visit Armstrong’s career with a bucket of acid to pour over it. If you’re going to paint the portrait of a man who is nothing but bad, gloss over the good stuff entirely – don’t even bring it up. At this point, The Program is a movie where Armstrong hurts a couple people (and end up doing way better according to the endnotes) and then Frears must have gotten so mad that Armstrong never legitimately won anything that he had to stop the movie before he popped a blood vessel.
Screening courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival