Based on Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh, The Program is the motion picture of the story that sent shockwaves through the sporting world. When Lance Armstrong was outed as having succumbed to the temptations of performance enhancing drugs, everyone was shocked and disappointed that the man that the whole world had held in such revelry for his achievements after personal trauma, was a cheat. Conversely, there was a journalist who must have secretly taken some pleasure in being right for the best part of 15 years. David Walsh raised concerns over Armstrong’s sudden change in fortune over cycling the ‘climbing stages’ of the Tour in his first race after beating cancer. He was treated as the party-pooper looking for the negative in a miraculous story of recovery and human will to win. The truth will have surely been bittersweet because, despite drawing inevitable relief at being proven right, he saw the sport he loved being dragged through the mire by a man who had raised its profile to giddying Alpine heights.
There are times during The Program where it rests too heavily on format that feels much like a documentary. It moves quickly and efficiently between stages of Armstrong’s life, almost mirroring the stages of the race that made Armstrong famous. However, the speed with which we move from Armstrong the plucky up and comer, to Armstrong the cancer survivor, and finally to Armstrong the cheat, results in an unfortunate lack of depth to the characters. Before you know it, Armstrong is lording over his cycling team like an exceptionally athletic drug baron.
However, the film’s biggest strength is undoubtedly Foster’s portrayal of Armstrong, and it is his eerily accurate embodiment of the athlete that keeps the film interesting. Even the most minor detail, such as the smug incredulity in his facial expressions at any allegation that THE Lance Armstrong might have cheated, is replicated with absolute perfection by Foster, who actually went so far as to take performance-enhancing drugs in an effort to immerse himself in the culture of doping. His commitment to living and breathing as Armstrong ensures The Program is a success.
This is not to undersell the importance of a couple of decent turns in support. Chris O’Dowd’s performance as Walsh and Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis are both excellent. Armstrong’s evasive answers and aggressive behaviour towards Walsh produce some of the film’s most engaging scenes, where the tension between the two is perfectly built up by Foster and O’Dowd. Then, as the wolves close in on Armstrong and he begins to lash out, Foster is at his frightening finest.
The Program also boasts an outstanding cinematography. That is to say that visually, the film excels. Obviously, it has the advantage of being largely set in France’s sloping countryside or stunning snow-capped Alps. However, it’s captured beautifully and, additionally, the direction of the races illustrates the pace and danger of the sprint stages versus the slow, methodical climbs.
Overall, The Program is a perfectly fine retelling of the Lance Armstrong scandal. It looks great and it’s acted well across the board but it is let down by a real lack of embellishment beyond the bare facts and, in the end, Ben Foster is the film’s saviour.
The Program is out on Blu-Ray and DVD from February 8.