Stephen Frears’ The Program is an interesting look at the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. The film though is too lean to get into the nitty-gritty of the events and it comes across as very superficial. This is a shame, because Ben Foster’s portrayal of Armstrong is so good.
Based on the book Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh, John Hodges’ script covers the 20 years which saw Armstrong become a sports icon and inspiration to many across the globe. We witness how he went from being a struggling cyclist to cancer survivor, before rebounding with almost superhuman strength to win the Tour De France a record-breaking seven times. The key to Armstrong’s success wasn’t his powerful personal drive to win, but an ingenuous doping program that avoided detection for years. However, it was Sunday Times journalist Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd) who had the conviction to try and uncover Armstrong’s secret, despite mass opposition.
The story at the centre of The Program is a fascinating true-life morality tale. It’s the rise and fall of one of the great sportsmen of the last 100 years, but Frears’s film does it a disservice by never feeling more than a moving Wikipedia entry. In fairness, it’s difficult to distill a person as complex as Armstrong into a movie and his story is so unbelievable that maybe a fictional take can’t match the brazen unbelievability of the reality. Ben Foster’s turn as Armstrong is the driving force behind what makes The Program work. He channels Armstrong’s trademark intensity into a great performance but sadly, the rest of the film never manages to match it.
Disappointing rather than bad, The Program is a no-frills overview of Lance Armstrong’s unbelievable and deceptive sporting career. Stephen Frears’s film lacks depth and detail and it won’t offer anything extra to what has already played out in the press. There’s still a definitive film to be made on this better-than-fiction true-life story, but it’s doubtful it will have a lead as good as Ben Foster.