For those who only casually observe major sports news, or perhaps the likely many out there that hear of steroids and cheating and then tune out, The Program offers a shallow dramatized look at the rise and fall of a determined, egomaniacal American athlete.
For everyone else, this story of Lance Armstrong is redundant, perfunctory and ultimately inconsequential. Despite a strong lead performance by Ben Foster, Stephen Frears’ film doesn’t have a strong enough vision of a story that has been told far better in documentaries, books, and news articles. It certainly doesn’t help that Armstrong isn’t at all likeable; Foster only briefly finds his sympathetic side, but even by that point, we’re poised to doubt him.
A cocky, defiant racer, a young Armstrong soon realizes the way to win is to bend the rules, and this plucky upstart soon turns into a dominant figure in cycling aided by illegal performance enhancing drugs. It’s familiar tale, not only because of how recent the story is and that it’s been covered of late too, but because it’s a fairly typical sports narrative, even when it isn’t based directly on actual events.
Armstrong rises, everyone embraces him, and only select individuals see past the facade and ask important questions, which eventually lead to his downfall.
Among those is reporter David Walsh, whose book serves as the basis for the film, played by Chris O’ Dowd. When The Program isn’t a story about an selfish liar, it wants to be a bit of an investigative story, with Walsh poking and prodding at a story that everyone else tells him isn’t worth it. Walsh though appears for a bit and then fades into the background, only to reappear later in a film that doesn’t excel as dealing with the passage of time. Sometimes The Program borders on a critical look at a man grappling with lies and deceit, but at others it’s maintains a wider focus on doping throughout the game.
Armstrong shows himself to be a bully, a man in denial, yet moments of charity and compassion for cancer survivors is looked at as well. Trying to be a lot of things, it failed to be anything.
As a whole, it makes for an incongruent story. That is to say, although Armstrong showed inconsistencies in his character, and here indeed is a fascinating story about a man who inspired millions while selling falsehoods, the film isn’t up to the task of fleshing out the complexity of the story, either from within or without.
Thus it’s at best a time-filling primer, and a tepid, casual introduction to the story of Armstrong, well-done though incomplete and ineffective.