Stephen Frears’s biopic on disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong glides into cinemas just days after the fall from grace of tennis champion Maria Sharapova. The Program’s topicality makes its central quest interesting – to examine how Armstrong and his team won their Tour de France championships through the sustained abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. But the uninteresting storytelling style, by-the-book use of racing footage and flashbacks, and choppy editing squanders its long-term prospects.
Holding the movie together is an outstanding Ben Foster, who plays Armstrong with the right amount of steeliness and hubris. The cyclist’s commitment to the big lie of his career is effectively conveyed in the sequence in which he practices mouthing the statement “I have never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs” in front of a mirror before peddling the same untruth at a press conference that is being attended by, among other journalists, the Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd).
Walsh smells a rat. “I have no intention of going up a mountain to watch chemists compete!” he thunders at his sceptical editor in time-honoured fashion. However, Walsh’s dogged investigation into Armstrong’s doping behaviour, which is aided and supported by crooked Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillame Canet), is ultimately not as interesting as the character study of a fascinating athlete who is determined to win at all costs.
Armstrong’s obsessive mission is thought to have been triggered by an operation for soul-crushing testicular cancer. Down on his strength and minus his manhood, Armstrong seemingly gathers himself together to win a series of championships. But his victories have less to do with skill and fitness than with the cocktail of drugs that he and his team-mates regularly receive. “The bar is open,” jokes his manager.
Even though The Program stays away from Armstrong’s personal life, there is still far too much going on at any given point. However, the solid performances from Foster and the supporting cast steer the narrative. One measure of Armstrong’s blinkered belief in achieving the right goal through the wrong methods is revealed when he visits a cancer patient in hospital. The tenderness with which he looks at the patient reveals a side of the cyclist that we needed to see more of.
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