Even by sport’s definition of a comeback, Lance Armstrong was unique. Surviving cancer and winning one of the world’s most gruelling tournaments, Tour de France, seven times made him a champion like none other.
Even by sport’s definition of a letdown, Armstrong remains unique. Indicted for running “one of the most sophisticated doping programmes in the history of sport”, he was stripped off all his tiles.
The Program is based on a book on him written by journalist David Walsh (here played by O’Dowd), who doggedly pursued his suspicion that Armstrong was using performance-enhancing drugs.
Foster plays Armstrong as a fanatically ambitious competitor, with a hunger so deep to win that it overruled everything else. Foster’s eyes wear this constant watchful look, taking on almost a gleam when he talks of winning.
The Program makes an equally compelling case of how even “the world’s most tested athlete” got away with cheating for so long. And of how a sport turns a willing blind eye and makes a cosy circle that few dare or want to break, and even how everyone wants a hero to believe in.
When Armstrong says he is only trying to stay “one step ahead of the others” — while either having his dirty blood taken out, or clean blood injected back in — you can see how it looks from his point of view.
Where The Program fails is in giving us a deeper insight into the man himself, beyond the athlete, and the moral compunctions he played down. Armstrong eventually decided to confess and not challenge his lifetime ban for what the controversy was doing to his children. However, but for one wedding scene, there is no sign of either his wife or those kids in the film.
In comparison, for a film so focused on just one aspect of the Armstrong story, there is a surprisingly protracted sequence of his cancer fight.
Plemons gets a fuller role than Foster as fellow cyclist and teammate Flyod Landis, who fights back his deeply religious background when the doping gets too bad. Apart from the physical toll the drugs are having on him, Landis struggles with what to tell his parents and finds it harder and harder to keep his doubts away.
Canet as controversial doctor/trainer Michele Ferrari is also pretty good, while O’Dowd makes no impact at all.
In the heydays of his Livestrong Foundation, Armstrong tells an appreciative audience of cancer patients in the film that “the will to survive is the biggest drug of all” and tells them to “write your own story”. There is an Armstrong story waiting to be told; The Program is just a part of it.
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Ben Foster, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Chris O’Dowd