There are many stories surrounding cycling icon Lance Armstrong worthy of cinematic treatment. There’s the athlete himself, whose hubris and competitive nature led him to dupe, receive and betray. There’s the many authorities who turned a blind eye, including the media – save the one journalist, David Walsh, with the courage to take on Armstrong’s cabal. And of course, there’s America as a whole, who cheered on his triumphant narrative and marveled aghast when it was exposed as a sham.
Undoubtedly, the saga of Lance Armstrong’s historic rise and meteoric fall from grace has the proportions of Greek tragedy, should someone choose to apply such a framework. Yet none of these seem of interest to John Hodge, writer of”The Program.” His take on the events is one largely void of perspective, oscillating freely between Armstrong and Walsh without ever mooring the film in either one of their tales. The result is an experience that far underwhelms the proportions of the history it covers.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of Stephen Frears’ film is how easily it renders something so ordinary out of this extraordinary scandal. It appears that the main focus of the film is Armstrong (Ben Foster) and his insatiable need to win, a trait which powers him to the top of the sport while also sowing the seeds of his eventual demise. His teammates, as represented primarily through Jesse Plemons’ Floyd Landis, reaped the benefits of Armstrong’s victory thanks to the increased media attention his story gave the sport. This rising tide lifting their ships, however, came on the condition that they both stay out of the spotlight and remain complicit in the doping ring.
Armstrong might have made a better background character, to be honest. We know his face, his voice and his character from the aforementioned turn of the millennium media blitz. It’s pretty clear that Foster aims for a less imitative and more representational portrait of the man, akin to Michael Fassbender’s take on Steve Jobs. But as much as we thought we knew Jobs, his persona mostly amounts to tidbits from product launches. Lance Armstrong was everywhere for a solid decade, and Foster’s inability to overcome the hurdle of recognition hampers the rest of his performance.
“The Program” could have even been a wicked two-hander with Chris O’Dowd’s Walsh, working a “Frost/Nixon” style dynamic. A long-time skeptic who covered Armstrong even before his testicular cancer struck, Walsh might have developed into an interesting foil. But alas, Hodge mostly reduces him to a peripheral figure who is important only because of the role he plays in the events – not because the script treats him as such. He fares better than the average incredulous American media consumers, though, who get totally left out of “The Program.”
It’s ok, fellow common folk, we have the far better film about Lance Armstrong: Alex Gibney’s incisive documentary “The Armstrong Lie.” C /