In the same week that the world reels from news that tennis star Maria Sharapova failed a drug test, comes a film based on the real events surrounding the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. The Program, directed by Stephen Frears, stars Ben Foster as the fallen hero. He plays the seven-time winner of the Tour De France cycling championship, and cancer survivor, who was stripped of his titles when it came out that he’d taken banned performance-enhancing drugs on every one of the races he won.
There is no question that Armstrong’s story is a compelling one – a tale of greed and deception. It’s also one that most of us are familiar with: the barefaced lies that shaped most of his career, even the dirty bullying tactics he used to shut down those that threatened to tell the truth. The film recounts all the events, but the narrative feels watered down. Based on an account by The Times reporter David Walsh (a solid Chris O’Dowd) who systematically investigated Armstrong over 13 years, the screenplay lacks the urgency of that other excellent film about another dramatic takedown, Spotlight.
Yes, there are interesting scenes of Armstrong’s collaboration with the controversial Dr Ferrari who teaches him how “to fly” with a complicated blood doping program, and even the blatant way in which the entire US Postal cycling team took part in the subterfuge and ducked drug inspectors. But there are also clumsy flashbacks into Armstrong’s cancer-stricken phase and a tiring fixation with his teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), who struggles with the elaborate fraud.
Ultimately the film rests on Ben Foster and his performance as the deceitful cycling hero. While Foster is dedicated to the part and commits to it physically, he fails to get into the head of the man in order to reflect the extent of Armstrong’s brash ambition. That is explored to much better effect in Alex Gibney’s terrific documentary, The Armstrong Lie.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for The Program. It’s an average film at best, one that merely skims the surface of one of sport’s biggest scandals.