Movie Review: ‘THE PROGRAM’ – comes up short but still finishes an entertaining race about Lance Armstrong

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

THE PROGRAM | 103 min | R
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume CanetJesse Plemons and Lee Pace

There were maybe a handful of athletes as famous as Lance Armstrong was during the early 2000s. Not only was he constantly defending his Tour de France championship (and winning), he was also the face of overcoming cancer, backed by his renowned philanthropy with his Livestrong charity. His triumph as a cyclist was kept grounded by his triumph over cancer, and this became his brand to the public.

Also, as much as Tiger Woods brought golf into the national purview, so did Armstrong with cycling. It’s this, coupled with his aforementioned brand, that basically made him Teflon for almost 15 years. There were whispers about doping or cheating, but they were always just whispers. That is until he had his whole world exposed by reporter David Walsh and former teammate Floyd Landis.

In Stephen Frears’ new film THE PROGRAM, excerpts from Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” lay the groundwork for a breakneck look at what made Lance Armstrong start his advanced system, keep it away from prying eyes, and how his hubris that bordered on the sociopathic blew down his house of cards.

The movie starts with a sequence of riding uphill only to race downhill, complete with a monologue by Armstrong (played with steely reserve by Ben Foster). It is, of course, to mirror the tale that will unfold, as we see Armstrong in conversation with David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) for a story in the beginning of the cyclist’s legend. Walsh has been covering cycling for years as a reporter for “The Sunday Times”, and, after meeting with Armstrong, gives the scouting report to his workmates. He calls him a potentially great “day racer” but couldn’t last in something as grueling as the Tour de France.

After this meeting, Armstrong gets wise to his limitations and seeks help from the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), who is already under investigation for possibly distributing a hormone called erythropoietin, or EPO. He turns Lance away for having too much mass for the program to work, but it doesn’t stop him, and he wins in the Tour. He then gets diagnosed with cancer, beats it, and gets back with Ferrari to begin a bigger and better program. As he keeps repeating as champion, his ego gets out of control, and it’s only a matter of time until karma comes a-knockin’.

Ben Foster stars as Lance Armstrong in THE PROGRAM. Photo courtesy of Entertainment One and Momentum Pictures.

Ben Foster stars as Lance Armstrong in THE PROGRAM. Photo courtesy of Entertainment One and Momentum Pictures.

THE PROGRAM comes with a well-respected director in the Oscar-nominated Frears (THE GRIFTERS, THE QUEEN) and a terrific cast, but it is always getting ahead of itself as the narrative unfolds. The story never quite completes the web it is trying to weave and leaves a feeling of discontinuity; frequent time jumps happen with or without the given year in the title cards. Also, it doesn’t fully key in on the battle between liar Lance and truth-seeker David; Walsh just kind of comes back in to unleash his skepticism of the champion. There never really is enough time to put everything together cohesively. They also introduce Lance’s first wife and just never bring her up again, and his kids show up at one point but that’s it.

Narrative miscues aside, the movie does dedicate itself to revealing what the Armstrong program really accomplished and exploited. Lance came to prominence by exploiting his illness and the teammates he surrounded himself with in the USPS team. It delves into the science of cycling in order to get the audience to understand the cheating process. Also, the movie makes the right move in having Lance start out as an egomaniac in order to get its point across: Lance Armstrong only cares about Lance Armstrong.

The cast is bringing their A-game, especially Foster, who doesn’t try to impersonate Armstrong, but instead brings a brash arrogance out in front. Some of the dialogue used for Armstrong is transcribed from actual interviews/speeches, which have a whole new light shed on them as everything is coupled with Lance building up his program. Jesse Plemons does well to bring sympathy to Floyd Landis, the man who would eventually blow the whistle, and it leaves the viewer wanting more of his story.

Co-starring Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Edward Hogg, and Dustin Hoffman (!), THE PROGRAM leaves its acting and editing to do most of the heavy-lifting. While it veers off course in certain areas, it is still a fascinating look at a proud man staring down a barrel, waiting for the gun to go off. If only they had taken the slow-and-steady approach, it could’ve been stronger in the end.

THE PROGRAM is now available in select theaters, as well as various VOD services.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.