The Program does not tell a particularly filmic story. It doesn’t have a rewarding dramatic arc. Telling the story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, with Ben Foster in the role–and as the film’s main character–does not offer many moments of joy. Foster’s spellbinding. He humanizes the sociopath enough to make him understandable in his cruelty. The Program is not a mystery, it starts with Foster figuring out how to cheat. At no moment is he playing the hero, not even when he does something heroic. It’s nearly a biopic, albeit an inspiring one, but it’s also a condemnation of character.
Rightly so too. But it does mean having an “anti-hero” in the lead position of the film and that situation holds The Program back. There’s a lot of historical footage used for the bike racing. While director Frears and cinematographer Danny Cohen do shoot some excellent cycling sequences, this film isn’t about the sport. It’s not about the thrill of it. It’s not even about the cost of fraud, if only because the subject isn’t capable of feeling guilt. Foster’s performance is phenomenal in the third act, when things come crashing down, because he’s got to collapse silently. It’s a tour de force performance (no pun) without a great defining scene. He never faces off with the people he’s tried to ruin. He’s a snake. He has a lawyer do it. And Foster’s perfect at it.
In the antagonist positions are Chris O’Dowd as the reporter who tries to figure out why Armstrong has to brake while going uphill. For a while, O’Dowd has a lot to do. Then he disappears. He’s excellent, but the film just doesn’t have enough for him to do. The same goes for Jesse Plemons as one of Foster’s teammates. He’s great, he has a complex arc (sort of), but he doesn’t have a lot to do. Again, history fails to provide the necessary melodrama.
Once things get legal, Cohen and Frears employ some odd spherical lenses to create claustrophobia in the Panavision frame. It’s not successful, but Frears is more about his actors, more about the way the film conveys its narrative than its visual sense. In many ways, The Program is just watching to see what Foster is going to do next, just like the viewer.
Good support from Guillaume Canet and Denis Ménochet. Cohen’s photography, spherical choices aside, is strong. The same goes for Valerio Bonelli’s editing. Except the historical footage. It might have made sense if it were a metaphor for O’Dowd waxing poetic about cycling turned into a fraud, but it isn’t. It’s mostly an expository shortcut, a budget requirement.
The film starts strong, but it’s obviously relying on its actors and on John Hodge’s sturdy, methodical, somewhat thankless script. Frears takes the time to set up expectations, then lets Foster surpass them all. The Program doesn’t want to answer all the questions its raises, it’s happy to just come up with some good questions. It might limit the film’s overall potential, but Foster, O’Dowd, Plemons, Cohen and Frears all do excellent work here.
Directed by Stephen Frears; screenplay by John Hodge, based on a book by David Walsh; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Valerio Bonelli; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Alan MacDonald; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seward and Kate Solomon; released by StudioCanal.
Starring Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Medecin Michele Ferrari), Denis Ménochet (Johan Bruyneel), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu) and Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman).