For as long as I knew the name Lance Armstrong there were stories about his superhuman strength, and suspicions about how he got it. Breathless reports would talk about his endurance and stamina, elevated, surprisingly, after battling testicular cancer. For a sport where one is sitting on a small seat all day you could even argue advantage of his illness on kinematic levels, but there was talk of his genetic freakiness, how he alone had the perfect balance between a racer’s and a climber’s body.
The fall from grace for Armstrong was calamitous, and The Program tries to dramatize it in ways meant to be both entertaining and informative. Few on this continent follow the tour religiously, and most know Armstrong simply as a champion of a sport that didn’t historically have American winners, let alone seven time victors. From the ubiquitous “Livestrong” bracelets to Nike ads to innumerable events, Armstrong was a transcendent figure far overshadowing the sport that was the cornerstone of his fame.
If the film has a hero figure it’s awkwardly placed on the shoulders of reporter David Walsh. As played by Chris O’Dowd (who, for the record, I adore in almost everything he does), we see a tenacious scribe taking one on the chin for standing up and saying the emperor has no clothes, or, in this case, blood dopes in order to win his races. For an audience that knows the downfall’s coming Walsh’s obstacles seem a little too pat, feeling more structural than organic to the story.
As for the portrayal of Armstrong, there’s little fault to find in Ben Foster’s choices. He’s a tremendous talent, one that sadly really hasn’t had a breakout hit to showcase for wide audiences his dexterity and commitment. In a year where we see Leo finally get his trophy for wrestling a CGI bear and eating liver, Foster provides another showcase of “heavy”, physical acting. He looks a natural on the bike, and gives off that sense of confidence and douchiness that perfectly encapsulates Lance’s shtick.
A trim Jesse Plemons plays Floyd Landis, while Edward Hogg and Elaine Cassidy play Frankie and Besty Andreu. These figures loom large in the real story, and here for dramatic purposes their contributions are obviously significantly simplified. It’s nice to see Dustin Hoffman strut his stuff, even briefly, and the rest of the cast assembled by director Stephen Frears do a decent job of telling the tale.
The film plays as a combination of investigative journothriller (think Spotlight) and sports flick. The opening scenes of a rider struggling up a French Alpine run are beautiful and poetic, showcasing the grace at the heart of the sport. Soon shots of numerous collision are peppered in, an overt if effective reminder of the precariousness of being perched on that small saddle connected to those skinny wheels.
In the end it’s hard to argue for the effectiveness of the work. There are moments of cinematic beauty, sure, but it feels half-baked as a serious drama. There are loads of ethical questions raised by Lance’s downfall, fascinating ones that begin with whether it’s cheating if the entire sport is engaged in the same behaviour, and the film does tangentially touch upon them. Yet for the sake of general audiences things become far more black-and-white, with overt bad guys being taken down by the good.
Behind the yellow jersey there’s a fascinating story in the figure of Lance Armstrong, and The Program may be the first of many attempts to fictionalize that story in cinematic form. The film doesn’t completely crash out, but it certainly doesn’t climb nearly as fast or hard as it needs to be to live up to the epic nature of the story it tries to tell.