“It’s not muscles, it’s not lungs, it’s heart,” Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) narrates as we watch him climb a mountain in the maillot jaune as the film opens. It’s a poignant reminder of the utter conviction Armstrong had (or has) that what he was doing was legitimate, that this was all fair game.
But in a story that has been tread over countless times since Armstrong’s admission to doping in 2013, Stephen Frears’ The Program struggles to evoke many more of these moments or reveal any more insight into the Armstrong saga than its documentary predecessors, like Alex Gibney’s 2013 The Armstrong Lie, have already given to audiences.
While The Program is engaging through its recreation of moments unseen in the Armstrong story, it feels too often like it skims the surface before it quickly moves on as it attempts to cram almost 20 years into 104 minutes.
In the film’s first meeting between Armstrong and David Walsh (ably played by Chris O’Dowd), set in 1993 before the Texan embarks on his first Tour de France, it begins to feel like this is set-up to be the story of one journalist and his journey to uncover the truth about a man he believes to be cheating his way to victory. It’s what you would expect from a film which claims to be based on Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.
Yet as the film also attempts to cover the many characters involved in the great construction that was the Armstrong lie, as well as try to delve into the psychology of the main man, Walsh’s investigations fall somewhat by the wayside.
His construction of evidence that lead to the publication LA Confidential in 2004 are all checked off here, but there’s a lack of methodology or depth that you get from Walsh’s book as the film tries to make sure it covers all the points.
Moreover, it creates a difficult prospect for both those who know the ins and outs of the story and those who are completely unfamiliar. Characters here are brushed over quite quickly, and so it would be hard to see anyone unfamiliar coming away with a full grasp of the importance of Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly in Walsh’s investigation. Likewise, those familiar might come away frustrated with some characters’ lack of involvement.
Nevertheless, the are a number of impressive facets of the film. Foster, who plays Armstrong well (nailing the intimidating stare) as a determined, unrelenting athlete, but ultimately flawed person, is only overshadowed by the performance of Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis.
The relationship between the two former US Postal riders is the most engaging of the film, with Frears focusing more on Landis’ Mennonite upbringing than anything in Armstrong’s personal life.
There’s no subtlety here as the hypocrisy of Landis’ choices are made abundantly clear, but his emotional arc from a young, hopeful bike rider to a resentful, yet remorseful, whistleblower becomes the most arresting tale as we check off the milestones of Armstrong’s career.
The race scenes are, for the most part, excellent, using a combination of recreations and archive footage with excellent attention to detail on the bikes and the various team kits, though the podium shots and the unconvincing Alberto Contador feel off the mark.
Likewise the doping scenes are authentic and dramatic at first, though their frequency dilutes that feeling as the film goes on and you get accustomed to watching a man transfusing his own blood. The Dr Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) character also takes the sting out of those scenes, with his over-the-top Italian accent and 70s footballer-style dress sense almost a parody of itself.
While The Program is an entertaining depiction of events told time and again, its biggest failure is really to live up to its promise. Rather than dig deep into the underlying motivations and psychology of the key characters involved, it merely jumps from turn to turn in the Armstrong tale and presents everything that you’d expect to see, but nothing new.
And it’s that anticlimactic effect that might leave you a little deflated on the film’s hasty end. While the performances of Foster and Plemons might keep you hooked, the story itself, as Leonard Cohen sings over the closing credits, is just the same one everybody knows.