By now everyone knows Lance Armstrong’s story: the disgraced fallen cycling hero, the man behind “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”. A plethora of documentaries later (most prominently Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie), one might ask if this film was needed. But the truth is that movies get under the skin of their characters in a way that documentaries cannot – they explore real people within the limitlessness of the fictional world, get under the thick layers of complex human nature, and ultimately bring a certain sense of catharsis. Great sports biopics focus on the human behind the celebrity, effortlessly making the audiences feel emotionally involved with the subject.
Unfortunately, Stephen Frears’ The Program fails to bring its story to this level – everything feels very familiar as the film follows almost scene by scene the already well-known documentaries before it. It is admirable that John Hodge’s script stays true to the actual events, using official investigation documentation and sportswriter David Walsh’s book as primary sources. However, as a result, the film serves to only dehumanise Lance even further by focusing exclusively on his infamous ruthless ambition, not bringing anything new to the table. Somewhat surprisingly, his personal life is almost completely absent too, touched on so delicately that all the viewer ends up knowing about his wife is her love for Italian food and bicycles. That’s it – they get married and she is never to be seen again, leaving the feeling that she should have been left out altogether. Truth is, quite a few awkward scenes and flashbacks could have been cut out entirely in favour of a more detailed character study.
Despite its many flaws, The Program is still a pretty entertaining film mainly thanks to Chris O’Dowd who is absolutely great as David Walsh, his comedic timing making him a real scene-stealer. What about Lance, the man himself? Lookalike Ben Foster is brilliant when he gets to be the infamous bully, the man nobody dared to oppose, the cyclist who used his team to only play for himself. Sadly, he is not as strong when facing the media, lacking that seductive charisma that Lance used to his utmost advantage. With an abrupt end that fails to tie up the whole story together, the film leaves the viewer feeling a bit cheated, fittingly while trying to understand the same man that has cheated so many times before.
The Program is released nationwide on 16th October 2015.
Watch the trailer for The Program here: