by Philip Price
There is something to a Stephen Frears’ picture that is always appealing. I never expect much from them, but I typically end up with something pretty great. I've probably watched “Philomena” a handful of times since 2013 because I tend to show it to people who have never heard of it. The same could be said of “The Queen” or “High Fidelity.” These aren't major, milestone pieces, but they are always quenching in a way only Frears can seem to deliver. Maybe I should have went in with those same non-existent expectations to the English director’s latest, but either way “The Program” would probably be something of a minor letdown. This isn't to say the film isn't good, in fact it has a lot of positive things going for it and I honestly wasn't ready to see it come to an end when it did, but the typical pop that comes with a Frears’ production just isn't at play here. Given Frears had painted a moving and somewhat revealing picture of Queen Elizabeth in his Oscar-nominated 2006 film I thought he might be up to something similar with his Lance Armstrong biopic, but alas there is no alternate version of Armstrong's life that the news reports haven't already divulged. Instead, Frears recounts the highs and lows of Armstrong's career with a compelling flow and solid performances, but nothing to give it that extra oomph to make it something truly special.
Based on the book by Irish sports journalist David Walsh (portrayed by Chris O'Dowd here) the film follows Walsh's account to prove that Lance Armstrong was always an athlete who experimented with banned substances and won all seven of his Tour de France titles by doping on a substance called EPO. Armstrong of course used other performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormones and blood transfusions, but EPO is where it all began with the help of Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). The film begins in 1993 with a 21 year old Armstrong being interviewed by Walsh before his first Tour. The film hits on Armstrong's body type not being of the right proportions for Ferrari's program upon their first meeting, but after battling testicular cancer, surviving and losing a considerable amount of muscle and weight in chemo Armstrong returns to the doctor with a new will to win. One thing the film doesn't seem to zero in on is how much Armstrong's battle with cancer likely pushed him to do whatever it took to beat the odds. Still, we then move forward to 1998 when Armstrong took on the United States Postal Service endorsement and hired Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace) as his lawyer and publicist and former cycling competitor Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) as the team’s new coach. Between 1998 and 2000 Armstrong won his first two Tours, founded the Livestrong foundation, got married and became the most famous cyclist in the world. Frears’ film hits each of these points up through to the conclusion two years ago where Armstrong admitted on Oprah Winfrey's show that he did in fact use performance enhancing drugs the entire time he was competing, an accusation that Walsh was raked over the coals for when he became convinced Armstrong's performances during his early Tour de France victories were fueled by banned substances.
While Frears’ film more or less ticks off the boxes of Armstrong's career highs and lows what it does best is give us access behind the scenes of the cyclist’s extravagant program that puts his team and himself ahead of everyone else. From the opening shot Frears puts on full display the intensity of the exertion necessary to compete in such a sport. As we get to know Armstrong better though we come to understand his psyche more as well. Of course, this intimate view is due in large part to the performance of Ben Foster. Foster has always been an actor who embodied dedication and crafting something specific and I can only imagine he went to even greater lengths with this role given he is the lead and it being based on a real person. Foster plays Armstrong with something of smugness throughout, a man so tipped by his celebrity and what the medicines have made him that he actually believes himself invincible. At the same time, there are scenes in which Foster's Armstrong is a man who seems to sincerely want to help others with his Livestrong brand and more or less raises his profile so that his charity might be more successful. Foster feeds Armstrong a look of genuine guilt when visiting children at a cancer hospital who he knows don't have the best coming for them. At the flip of a coin though, Foster's version is the one forcing anyone in his camp to participate in, the disposal of and/or the acquiring of the drugs needed to ensure their victory. He has no limits, he will do whatever it takes and we see in his narrow eyes the mind working to create the facade of the handsome cancer survivor who inspires millions.
There is something chillingly psychotic to it. To be able to lie on that level for so many years and knowingly ruin so many lives. There has to be something severely distorted about the way your brain works to be able to live with one's self. Is it that though or is it simply that of an athlete’s brain? An individual who lives for little more than the thrill of competition? Athletes feel this immense pressure to be super human and champions, but to default to cheating automatically removes the point of any competition. Everyone wants to win honestly, there would be nothing better, but when sports are determined by factors out of one's control what are they to do? Lance Armstrong was not genetically blessed with the best body build for cycling, but because of his will and desire, heart and motivation there was no way this guy was going to take a back seat. Nature then more or less determines who will be the winners and who will be the losers, but as is clear in Armstrong's case the God-given talents of some don't always match up with the unstoppable mentalities of others. While “The Program” more or less feels by the numbers, it is in these insights, these contemplations and a handful of strong performances that make it more than a newsreel, but largely fascinating.
To watch the deceitful web that Armstrong built for so many years come crashing down was something he had to see as inevitable. There was never going to be a way that this ended good for him given all the wrong he'd done, but as with most cases concerning egomaniacs they can't help themselves. They have to see how far the lie can go and how much they can gain for themselves from it. Foster is undoubtedly in control here as he brings a depth and soul to a man much of the country now believes doesn't have one, but his supporting cast is just as up to task. Whether it be the wonderful Chris O'Dowd who plays Walsh with such passion that he can hardly stand to watch Armstrong kill the sport he once believed in or Jesse Plemons as 2006 Tour de France winner and longtime Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis. Landis' narrative is inherently interesting from the moment we meet him, but it is the vindication that slowly builds in Landis that Plemons plays up allowing it to really pay off in the last act. Pace and Menochet are fine in their supportive roles while Canet creates a memorable presence almost immediately and infuses the movie with his blasé outlook on pushing the boundaries of science and sports medicine to the point we almost believe Armstrong had reason to believe it wasn't that big of a deal.
Overall, “The Program” is a bit patchy (there is one scene showing Armstrong marrying Kristin Richard and then nothing more of it) and spoils a perfectly good Dustin Hoffman by never having him do anything a smaller, character actor couldn't do. It sometimes feels it's playing exclusively as a highlight reel, but when elevated by the bits of introspection from Foster between the headlines there is much to be taken from this portrait of one man's rise and fall for being a fraud to all that came to be inspired by him. A fraud that even a cancer shield couldn't protect. And while the film may not be the defining piece concerning Lance Armstrong's life it's no doubt better than whatever movie Hollywood might have made prior to the allegations being confirmed that would have apparently made Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal look like an ass.