In under a half hour, Stephen Frears’ The Program, a biopic on the life of Lance Armstrong, spins its spokes past the athlete’s initial professional failings, his subsequent doping, his bout with testicular cancer, and his following reemergence as he wins his first (of seven) Tour de France. This casual and ultimately indifferent Greatest Hits approach to Armstrong’s legacy is among the many suspect choices that plague The Program. And for a director of Frears’ standing, one whose filmmaking credentials include minor though inarguably thoughtful pictures like The Grifters and High Fidelity, the tonal deafness he exhibits in The Program is astounding.
The problems surface immediately, wherein Frears positions his two characters, cyclist Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) and sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) against each other in a game of foosball. Let’s disengage from the abject silliness of the situation and just understand what writer John Hodge is attempting to do under such labored circumstances: he’s attempting to create a dichotomy between his two characters, establishing Armstrong’s tenacity and Walsh’s integrity. But such a dopey exchange requires finessing to make the whole situation plausible, and frankly, there’s nothing remotely convincing about this or many other exchanges that populate the picture. Moreover, this early sequence signals a distinct misdirection in tone and perspective, whereby Hodge and Frears shift their allegiances entirely behind Armstrong, with Walsh’s presence lingering for dramatic effect.
The Program yearns to be a film of duality, one that challenges the mythopoeia of an athlete whereby the public’s vision of a hero is distorted and unclear. But Frears and Hodge are vague in their ambitions, resulting in a film of duel interests between Armstrong’s perceived fraudulence and Walsh’s investigative virtues with neither of these elements being fully formed. And of the two emphasized – Armstrong’s megalomania – Frears and Foster fail to elevate the psychological depths of the material beyond that of a cartoon. Foster exhibits the aesthetic realization of a character but never shows any particular nuance in his handling of the character’s psychology. When paired with Guillaume Canet’s super-villainous Michele Ferrari, a doping doctor supplying Armstrong and his team, the whole enterprise devolves into a cartoonish rendition of Frankenstein and his monster.
And for a film primarily about cycling, there’s very little in the way of persuasively kinetic examples of the sport. As an urban cyclist, it’s one of the grand cinematic misfortunes that so few films actually capture the spirit of riding a bike at high speeds – the best example of the form remains David Koepp’s underrated Premium Rush. Copious amounts of stock footage illustrate the best examples of cycling in The Program, with Frears often opting to shoot his actors in silhouette or from a distance, failing to acknowledge the physicality of the sport itself. Compounded with Frears’ propensity for montage (used to capture most of Armstrong’s Tour de France victories), one could suggest that The Program is really not about cycling at all.
So, what is this film about anyway? Not much of a sports film or a procedural (the Walsh segments of the film are disastrously mishandled), The Program functions in a nebulous stasis of inconsequence. Its attempts at grandiosity or emotional resonance are undercut by an illogical sense of pacing and sketchy caricatures. There’s an intriguing, worthwhile film to be made about this subject; a film that could both expose our false idols and reexamine our relationships with celebrity. But The Program is most certainly not that film.