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Movie Review: “The Program”

Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemmons, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Pace
Stephen Frears

Stephen Fears’ “The Program” is the rise-and-fall story we all expected from a Lance Armstrong biopic, and that’s the biggest issue with this overly familiar tale. Despite a committed lead performance from Ben Foster, Frears’ drama is an obvious and frustrating depiction of ambition and obsession.

We all know the story. Lance Armstrong (Foster) was one of the world’s most beloved heroes, until the cyclist was revealed to be a fraud. Armstrong wasn’t the biggest or fastest racer at the start of his career, but his luck soon changed after using performance-enhancing drugs, only to learn he had cancer following his first major victory. Armstrong ultimately made his grand return to cycling after defeating the cancer against all odds and went on to win more Tour de France titles, but journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) found the comeback awfully questionable.

“The Program” is basically a David vs. Goliath tale between Armstrong and Walsh. Both men love cycling, but Walsh believes that Armstrong is killing the sport, which pains him. To get to the truth, Walsh faces an uphill battle as he takes on the great and mighty Lance Armstrong. In the end, that’s all Frears’ film is really about.

Armstrong is portrayed in the movie as a shark. That’s fine, of course, but John Hodge’s script rarely slows down to let the audience fully empathize with the character. There is one great instance where the story is allowed to unfold more gracefully – when Armstrong comforts an ill child – that makes for a fantastic dichotomy; one of the biggest liars in the world couldn’t be experiencing a more truthful connection. It’s a superb scene that’s played with genuine emotion by Foster, showing Armstrong at his most vulnerable.

That’s the side of Lance Armstrong this film could’ve used more, because throughout the rest of the narrative, the character follows the traditional biopic beats. Although we see Armstrong meet and marry his wife, she’s only in the film for about three minutes, and that potential drama is completely overshadowed by the less engaging external conflict of whether Armstrong is a liar. Underneath the surface, there’s very little to grab onto, despite how good Foster is in the lead role. The actor never sugarcoats Armstrong, often playing up his behavior, almost like a Bond villain.

Frears has directed some great films, including a few biopics, but this is a major disappointment from him. He’s a very adaptable filmmaker who typically lets the story, whether it’s a romance or a thriller, dictate his style, but here, his direction is strangely distant. The races themselves are shot without passion, which is probably something Armstrong brought to every race, whether he was cheating or not. Very little of the film effectively visualizes Armstrong’s point of view.

When the inevitable downfall comes, it lacks any real punch. The audience should feel angry or betrayed by the version of Armstrong that’s portrayed in the film – or at least feel something – but “The Program” doesn’t offer up enough satisfying insight into his journey. Frears’ biopic, especially with its high-caliber cast, is a missed opportunity.