The only real problem with Stephen Frears’ ‘The Program’ is that it can’t help but exist in competition with the brilliant documentary ‘The Armstrong Lie‘, and fictionalized true life stories just can’t beat the real thing. A similar problem dogged Robert Zemeckis’ ‘The Walk’ last year. While ‘The Program’ is a better film overall, both movies are only really worth seeing alongside their documentary counterparts for one major element they each do well.
With ‘The Walk’, it was the extraordinary IMAX visualization of the insane Twin Towers tightrope walk. With ‘The Program’, it’s a remarkable performance from the great Ben Foster as one of the most troublingly complex figures in sports history.
Frears and his screenwriter John Hodge (‘Trainspotting’) assume that anyone coming into their film already knows the basics of the Lance Armstrong story, so they don’t bother holding back any big reveals. They start with the muscly young Armstrong struggling in the Tour de France knowing that his competitors have a pharmaceutical edge. Then they dive straight into his cancer trial. From there, the chemotherapy-weakened Armstrong finds himself in an oddly perfect position to be rebuilt to compete as a drug-enhanced biking machine. Working with the Frankenstein-like doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), Armstrong creates a new training system to build himself into a super-cyclist defined by a specific drug regimen rather than enhanced by it. After that, the guy is unstoppable and becomes an international hero. Right away, journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd, playing the author of the book that the film is based on) knows something is up, but struggles for years to convince anyone to speak or get any publication interested in the story. Obviously, we all know where things go from there.
Aside from the fact that the Lance Armstrong legend and downfall were so heavily covered by the media in recent years, this is an intriguingly unconventional sports story. Fears and Hodge take delight in toying with the rise-and-fall conventions. They build to the traditional moments of triumph, but lace them all with a bitter aftertaste of open cheating. It’s a clever approach that likely will go unappreciated, primarily because the story doesn’t have any surprises for viewers who had access to an internet search engine over the last decade and knew how to spell “Lance Armstrong.”
The filmmakers also admirably don’t load Armstrong up with needless extra motivation or backstory to justify his self-deception and cheating. We spend a great deal of time with the character and see the insane lengths he went to secure clean blood and urine during his races, but there aren’t many characters to serve as Armstrong’s friends or confidents with whom he shares his secrets. He remains somewhat of a mystery even though the mechanisms of his deceit are revealed. The most fleshed-out characters are those like O’Dowd’s David Walsh chasing Armstrong’s lies. This is likely a deliberate choice given that only Armstrong really knows why he did what he did and the layers of self-deception involved make his motivations murky at best to outsiders. However, I’d imagine most viewers will be frustrated by that approach, even if it’s the most honest option for the filmmakers.
One thing that viewers won’t be disappointed by is Ben Foster’s amazing commitment to the role. Foster has quietly been one of the best actors of his generation for quite some time now, even though his preference for small roles in even smaller films has generally kept him out of the spotlight. This time, he’s front and center and impossible to ignore. On a superficial level, he physically transforms himself into the various stages of Armstrong’s career (from the cancer-ridden decrepit days to his drug-enhanced action figure era) so well that it’s impossible to spot the difference between the stock footage and new material. More than that, he embraces the ambiguity of the role to create a character whose motivations beyond winning are impossible to pin down.
The best scenes come when Armstrong practices denying his use of drugs in the mirror or silently wanders around his mansion knowing the kingdom will crumble. Tragedy and confidence are so tied together here that Foster’s character never quite seems comfortable even when it’s Armstrong’s job to inspire confidence and hope. It’s a brilliant bit of work and hopefully won’t be overlooked.
With this being a Stephen Frears film, all of the supporting roles are also carefully cast and cleverly performed. Standouts include O’Dowd’s surprisingly straight turn as an endlessly frustrated journalist who knows the truth but can’t find anyone to listen and Guillaume Canet’s creepily European monster with a prescription pad orchestrating the whole mess. Honestly, everyone on screen is strong, but Foster acts circles around them all so it’s hard to notice. That’s likely how it should have been.
‘The Program’ is a well thought-out and constructed Lance Armstrong bio hinged around a stunning performance. It’s likely the best version of the movie that this specific group of filmmakers could deliver, and yet it somehow feels mildly disappointing. It’s hard to say exactly why, but it’s most likely just an unfortunate matter of timing. Had this hit before ‘The Armstrong Lie’, merely being the first movie on the subject could have helped its impact. Or maybe if it waited a few years until the story faded a bit from memory, it might have felt more pressing to tell the tale again. It’s hard to say. Unfortunately, right now it’ll be tough to find viewers who don’t know enough about Lance Armstrong to be surprised by anything in ‘The Program’, even if it’s a very well made movie.
Maybe this is a film that will grow in stature over time or maybe it’ll disappear. Either way, hopefully at least Ben Foster is remembered when the next awards season rolls around, because he delivers one hell of a performance that’s worth celebrating. Even if not, I’m sure sometime over the next five years he’ll find himself flooded with acting award nominations. The guy has been too good for too long to stay under the radar forever. ‘The Program’ might not be the movie that finally gets the actor the attention he deserves, but it’s a strong enough showcase to prove that a breakout project will come sooner rather than later.