Ben Foster plays the cyclist as an athlete obsessed with winning. A rising star on the race circuit, he looks to Dr. Medecin Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), an Italian doctor with a “scientific” approach to training to create a routine—the program—involving exercise, growth hormones, erythropoietin, cortisone and testosterone patches that will turn him into a champion. “You just tell me what to do,” Armstrong says eagerly, “and I’ll do it.” The doctor tells Lance that under his care you’ll, “no longer confined to earth now you can fly.”
In other words: OK Racer + Performance Enhancing Drugs = Great Racer.
When his career momentum is slowed by testicular cancer it seems as though everything will be lost but he beats the disease and comes back stronger than ever. Almost too strong. Sunday Times sports reporter David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) notes that during one race Armstrong is moving so quickly he has to use his brakes…going uphill. “He recovered from cancer and turned into Superman,” he says. Suspicious, he puts Armstrong and his team, the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, under a journalistic microscope. “I have no interest in watching chemists racing up a hill,” says Walsh.
As Armstrong and Co begin a streak that will eventually see them win seven Tour de France races Walsh raises an “unwelcome question,” Is it real or is it dope? Meanwhile Armstrong becomes an American hero, supporting cancer research through his charity, all the while denying any wrong doing in the dope department.
As the pressure increases so does his ego. He starts referring to himself in the third person—“Will he passed every test?” he says. “Yes he will because he doesn’t use performance-enhancing drugs.”—and launches lawsuits against the Sunday Times and Walsh in an effort to intimidate them into silence. It isn’t until a former teammate, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), comes clean about the doping that Lance’s empire crumbles.
Like its subject “The Program” moves quickly. So quickly, in fact, it plays like a montage, never settling on one thing long enough for the audience to care. Racing scene! Doping scene! Inspirational chatter like “Say to yourself, I’m flying”! Director Stephen Frears races through Lance’s life—his cancer is dispensed with in minutes while in another scene he meets a woman and in the next they’re walking out of a church, married—touching down here and there on the greatest hits of the man’s life. It’s a face paced but unsatisfying way to learn about the rise and fall of the most famous bicyclist in the world.
That he was a doper and a cheat is not in question but what got him there? Winning is everything to Lance, but why? Is it hubris? The movie doesn’t let us know. It is content to zip through the details without too much commentary on how or why we got there. It’s a story of hubris, heroics and hypocrisy that is more interested in broad strokes of how Armstrong created his own legend than the details.
“The Program” falls somewhere between a biopic, sports movie and the investigative reporting of “Spotlight,” but never gels as any one thing. Foster is fine in the lead role but the film doesn’t allow him to really inhabit the ski of his character. For a more complete and interesting look at Lance check out Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Armstrong Lie.”