The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong has a big irony we cannot help but notice at this point. He survived the illness which could have killed him, and he was determined to rise from his bottom by any means necessary, but what drove him to his triumph eventually led to one of the most disgraceful moments in the sports history.
As a broad look at his darkly dramatic trajectory, “The Program” starts its story around the point when Armstrong (Ben Foster) was a new promising cyclist to watch in 1994. As competing against other athletes, Armstrong and his American colleagues come to use performance-enhancing drugs, and we learn a bit about erythropoietin (EPO), a glycoprotein hormone which can enhance the strength and endurance of skeletal muscles through the increased synthesis of red blood cells. They can easily obtain EPO in Switzerland mainly because of the lack of local regulation, and they soon experience its impressive enhancement effect during their race.
Unfortunately, Armstrong is diagnosed to have a testicle cancer not long after that, and the circumstance is not very hopeful for him because his cancer is already developed into a malignant stage while spread around other organs including his brain. After the surgeries coupled with grueling chemotherapy sessions, Armstrong luckily avoids death, and then he sets a new goal which initially looks impossible considering his weakened health condition. He wants to make a comeback in the upcoming Tour de France, and he is already determined to win in this physically demanding race.
Armstrong knows the guy who will help him. Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), an Italian physician who would gain his notoriety for helping the doping of many other athletes besides Armstrong, gives what Armstrong wants during their private sessions, and then Armstrong surprises everyone through his ‘miraculous’ victory in 1999 Tour de France – and he keeps astonishing everyone through his consecutive wins in the Tour de France during next 6 years.
But some people begin to have reasonable doubts, and one of them is Irish sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who once met Armstrong in 1994. Because he is familiar with Armstrong’s early race records, it looks pretty clear to Walsh that Armstrong used drugs during his races, but he becomes frustrated to see that his fellow journalists are very reluctant to go deeper into that suspicion. After all, Armstrong’s story is a fantastic life drama too good to be ruined for media and public, and nobody is willing to deliver a bad news to spoil fun and excitement just because he has been doing rather too well to be believed.
Assisted by his team coach Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet), Armstrong keeps going on with his doping, and he pushes his team members into doping as well. In case of Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), a young man from a devout Mennonite family in Pennsylvania, he comes to find how he can be easily corrupted – even when he arrives at the point where he cannot ignore any more how unethical and hypocritical Armstrong and his team have been.
The adapted screenplay by John Hodge, which is based on Walsh’s non-fiction book “Seven Deadly Sins”, tries to juggle lots of materials as jumping around Armstrong and the other key supporting characters in the film, but the result is more or less than the flat enumeration of a series of real-life events. Although the movie makes some points on how Armstrong managed to cover his doping for years through not only his fame but also others’ silent consent and willful disregard, it merely rides fast toward its finishing point just like its shady hero, and it fails to generate enough dramatic momentum for us. In the end, we are only served with facts, not an engaging drama to interest us.
The actors in the film do whatever they can do with their roles. Ben Foster, who has been known well for his several intense performances, is packed with that brash, confident personality we saw from Armstrong in real-life. Besides looking physically believable on the screen, he always brings considerable intensity to his scenes, and that makes a nice contrast to Chris O’Dowd’s earnest low-key performance. Lee Pace, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, and Denis Menochet do not have many things to do in their thankless supporting roles, and Dustin Hoffman makes a very brief appearance as an insurance investigator who also smells something fishy from Armstrong.
The director Stephen Frears, who previously directed Oscar-nominated film “Philomena” (2013), also puts some efforts into the film while occasionally pumping up the narrative pace through the busy mix of archival footage clips and recreated scenes. The movie still feels thin and hollow, and I think the movie could be better if it focused more on the conflict between Armstrong and Walsh, who ended up being vindicated as well as getting his last laugh when everything based on Armstrong’s big lie was eventually crumbled down in 2012.
“The Program” is not that tedious thanks to its few good things including Foster’s committed performance, but I would rather recommend Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Armstrong Lie” (2013), which is more insightful and entertaining in comparison. I do not know what will happen next to Armstrong, but one memorable line from Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (1999) comes to my mind. “Fame has a fifteen minute half-life, infamy lasts a little longer.”