Lance Armstrong is THE sporting story of the millennium so far. His rise from the depths of testicular cancer to record breaking king of the Tour de France was spectacular, the fall that followed a sensation. Throughout it all, he has remained a mystery, a figure of ruthless competitiveness and bland charisma who never reveals enough to allow anyone to work him out. The Program is the latest effort to come up short, unsure how to tackle the story and unable to get inside the head of Armstrong even if Ben Foster does turn in an intensely compelling performance as the disgraced champion.
The film, directed by Stephen Frears, is based partly on the work of David Walsh, an Irish journalist writing for The Sunday Times who recognised the impossibility of Armstrong’s performances and pursued the truth for years suffering personal and financial penalties as a result. While there’s a thoroughness to the investigative side of the narrative, it also causes unresolved tensions. Foster’s Armstrong, and Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, jostle unevenly for position as the lead before John Hodge’s screenplay abandons Walsh in the final half hour.It’s characteristic of a film that struggles to tie down its story. The first half jumps relentlessly through time, starting in the early 90’s and moving into experiments with doping, his battle with cancer, and an entirely unexpected and triumphant return that saw Armstrong start on his way to seven Tour crowns. Many scenes feel like placeholders someone forgot to build into something more, marred by particularly clumsy exposition and a soundtrack that picks great songs without an ear for how they fit the scene. There are also shortcuts all over the shop. Armstrong’s initial decision to pump himself full of performance enhancing drugs comes very quickly and with no real reflection, as does doping doctor Michele Ferrari’s (Guillaume Canet) agreement to take him on.
The second half is a different picture, using Walsh’s growing scepticism and dogged pursuit of the truth to advance towards a finale played out in front of a watching world. Just when it needs to hit the hardest though, The Program pulls up short. The treatment of Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s former teammate who gave the final evidence that brought him down, hints at what might have been. Landis is drawn convincingly by Hodge’s writing and Jesse Plemons’ performance. The desire to win and the increasing weight of deceit wrestle within him until he eventually packs in the fight. There’s no such equivalent for Armstrong who remains as unknowable at the end as he is at the start.Given this, it’s a wonder Foster’s portrayal of the cyclist is so engrossing. He’s a focussed streak of energy pushing ever forwards. The way he bats aside opponents is scarily intense, yet he can manage charm when called on. There are two wonderful scenes that allow a real glimpse into Armstrong. In the first, he sits beside a sick child far longer than required, finally drawing a smile that is matched by his own. Later, when the end is in sight, he breaks down in front of officials, demonstrating at last what riding and winning means to him. The rest of the time the inside of his head stays firmly out of bounds.
There’s ultimately not much to take away. A chaotic jumble of a film, The Program manages to entertain, mostly due to Foster and a very engaging O’Dowd, while failing to get to grips with its subject. There’s a great film about Lance Armstrong out there somewhere. The wait goes on.