Directed by: Stephen Frears.
Written by: John Hodge based on the book by David Walsh.
Starring: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O'Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Medecin Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Denis Ménochet (Johan Bruyneel), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu), Laura Donnelly (Emma O'Reilly).
In order to be the best in the world at something, you have to go after it with single minded determination. Whatever else you can say about Lance Armstrong – and you can say plenty – you cannot deny that he went after being the best cyclist in the world with that determination. Did he cheat? Of course he did. But everything we now know suggests that pretty much everyone who was among the best in the world at that time was cheating – Armstrong just cheated better than anyone else did. The best thing about The Program, which charts Armstrong’s career from okay rider to cancer survivor to beloved seven time champ to disgraced athlete, is that Ben Foster’s performance as Armstrong captures that one track mind he had. He knows everyone is cheating, so damn it, he’s going to do it as well – and he’s going to win.
Foster has played a variety of psychos over the years, and he plays Armstrong in very much the same way. There is a cold look in his eyes as he rants and raves about how he has never tested positive, and when he goes after one person after another who tries to go public with what they know. It isn’t enough for Armstrong that there isn’t evidence – for years – which he cheated. He has to destroy those who are coming after him. And destroy them he does. It is the behind the scenes stuff where Foster really shines in the movie – the private moments we didn’t see. He is perhaps too good at doing that, as it bleeds over into the public face Foster gives Armstrong as well. Armstrong was a good actor – likable and charming enough to not only fool everyone, but to make people want to believe him. Foster doesn’t get that part right – he looks like a psycho even in those scenes as well. Foster is committed to this role – so committed, that apparently he actually used the drugs Armstrong did while filming the movie (which brings to mind Laurence Olivier’s advice to his Marathon Man co-star, Dustin Hoffman – also in this movie – “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”). There is commitment and there is stupidity – and Foster is dangerously close to the later here.
Aside from Foster’s performance though, there isn’t much in The Program. The film was directed by talented journeyman Stephen Frears – who rises and falls with his material. For every great film like The Grifters or High Fidelity, there are mediocrities like Mrs. Henderson Presents or Hero. Here, he’s saddled with a story that has been told many times over, including in Alex Gibney’s good documentary The Armstrong Lie just a couple of years ago. Frears and company don’t really bring much more to the table here. The audience surrogate is probably David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), one of the reporters who never believed Armstrong, and was after him for years. But Walsh disappears for long stretches of the movie, and there isn’t much to his character. Nor is there very much to Guillaume Canet’s performance as Medecin Michele Ferrari, the doctor who acted as Armstrong’s doping mentor – it’s a broad performance, by a Frenchman, doing a broad Italian accent, in English, and doesn’t much work. Dustin Hoffman and Lee Pace are pretty much wasted. I did like Jesse Plemons work as Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s teammate, and eventual disgraced Tour de France champion himself. Plemons makes Landis jealous and rather pathetic – not the face Landis tries to put to the public, but rather a man jealous that he cannot do anything as good as Armstrong – even cheat.
The movie pretty much rushes through Armstrong’s career – all those Tour de France wins, his retirement, his comeback, and doesn’t offer much in the way of detail on anything – it’s too concerned with moving onto the next thing, before it really deals with anything. A tighter film – maybe one that focused purely on Armstrong trying to cover things up, and how he was actually caught (it grazes over that quickly), would have worked better. As it stands, The Program feels too workmanlike at every level. There is a great movie to be made here –and Foster may well have been able to deliver that great performance – but unfortunately, The Program isn’t it.