Film Review: The Program

In 2012, I participated in the Livestrong Foundation Century Ride in Austin. It was my last long ride before my Ironman race, but that year, the air was buzzing for more political reasons. That was the first year Lance Armstrong did not make an appearance to kick off the event.

Most of his sponsors, starting with Nike, had dropped him, and he had just been asked to step down as chairman for the charity. Journalists and reporters were crawling and weaving through thousands of cyclists asking what we thought of the doping allegations.

I was hopped up on caffeine and carbs in preparation for the one-hundred miles before me, so my quote was not the most articulate. “This is still a fight against cancer. It’s not a fight for one man.” I think I meant to say “against one man,” but what do you expect from me at 6am on a Sunday morning?

I hadn’t been following the news as closely as I should have been to be quoted, but I do remember being hurt at the perpetual deceit. The doping was minimal compared to the lying. The new Lance Armstrong biopic, The Program, seems to agree while focusing heavily on the sins of Armstrong’s drug use.

We open with historical footage of the famous Tour de France. The race has morphed and changed drastically during its 90 years at the point when Armstrong first raced at the age of 21. The voice over is Lance saying is no more special than the other riders on the road. He just has more heart. We abruptly cut to a foosball game between Lance and David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd. David is interviewing Lance for The Daily Times newspaper and instantly takes a liking to the budding and arrogant cyclist.

I just love to ride my bike.

After Lance doesn’t place in the Tour that year, he learns about Ferrari: the doctor who oversees the doping of his team. Lance wants to “be whatever program they’re on.” But Ferrari tells him he has the wrong body type. He is not slim enough and will never get the results he wants with that much muscular bulk.

But Lance goes his own way and buys erythropoietin (EPO) from a foreign pharmacist, and the next thing he knows, he wins his first Tour. He’s on top of the world thanks to a little liquid push. But pride goeth before the fall, and he is diagnosed with testicular cancer. His journey through cancer is documented in the film and then told later in interviews and press junkets as Lance’s star rises to impossible heights. We see the beginnings of his unapologetic lies.

I just tell them what they want to hear.

Cancer is often villainized as an evil, but Lance embraces his slimmed down frame and goes back to Ferrari. He plans on becoming the best rider in the world and winning the Tour come hell or high water. And so it begins; his seven time reign as Tour champion.

David is getting suspicious. “He recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman.” It is quite a story, but instead of being grateful for ready-made headlines, David gets suspicious and starts digging for the truth.

It’s about this time that Floyd Landis is introduced to the team as a foil to Armstrong’s arrogant ways. Floyd (Jesse Plemons) is a God-fearing man who wants nothing more than to ride his bike despite his strict religious upbringing as a Mennonite. He is Armstrong’s sling-shot and right hand man propelling Armstrong through his subsequent victories. He fully participates in the doping ring just to be a part of the team. But the lying and deceit weigh heavily on him, and in the story, he is one of the first to crack. Whether he confesses to get back at Armstrong for the years of playing second-fiddle or for his own religious resolve, it’s not 100% clear.

The introduction of religion in the story with Floyd as the catalyst is very interesting as Lance gets more and more arrogant. He likens himself to God. Maybe not directly, but he has the arrogance and the self-absorption as someone who thinks himself infallible would. And this is where it all starts to fall apart for Lance leading him to his famous Oprah Winfrey confession in 2013.

* * * * *

The film tries to focus on the relationship between Lance and David and David’s chase for the truth with sprinklings of other dramatic and cinematic twists and turns. The film tried to accomplish too much in the 100 minutes, and it looses focus while it untangles the massive web Armstrong weaves.  I could have easily done with more or less since this story is ripe with stuff you just can’t make up.

Ben Foster was incredible as Lance Armstrong. He completely embodied the man in appearance and attitude. The arrogance dripped off of him as he repeated to himself, “I have never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.” His performance floored me since I grew up with the Disney TV show Fast Forward and remembered Foster as the geeky class clown trying to get through high school.

Chris O’Dowd was overshadowed by Foster, but he managed to hold his own going between being the young supporter of a rookie athlete to a beaten down reporter looking for redemption.

With other big names sprinkled throughout the cast like Lee Pace and Dustin Hoffman, the film is a good starter-kit to the whole Lance Armstrong story, but it only spends snippets of time on each moment in the two, sometimes three, person story leaving me wanting much more out of what I got. I plan on reading David Walsh’s book, The Program, to get a more rounded vision into the controversy. But as someone who dabbled in the Lance cycling world, I felt a connection the film. Just not enough for closure.

3 out of 5 stars

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