Ben Foster, in films like The Messenger and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, has proven himself to be a highly capable supporting actor, underutilised in the variety of sub-par genre pieces that he’s been a part of. In Stephen Frears’ new film, an examination of the lie at the heart of the life of Lance Armstrong, Foster finally shows the world exactly what he can do if given the right character. He’s mesmerizingly good as the disgraced cyclist, indistinguishable in mannerisms from his real-life counterpart, elevating what is otherwise a relatively mediocre, sometimes even boring, biopic. Frears found great success two years ago with his lovely true-life tale Philomena, but The Program struggles to achieve any real narrative lift, mired in frequent press conference scenes and not actually contributing much to the ongoing debate.
Lance Armstrong’s incredible recuperation from cancer, followed by a record-breaking seven Tour de France victories, is a well-known story, as is the subsequent discovery of his constant doping. His tell-all appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show brought his lies into the minds of millions of people (this particular conversation is recreated with eerie accuracy toward the tail end of the film), and The Program does do a decent job of fleshing out the specifics. The fact that it was the cancer, and the complete redistribution of Armstrong’s muscle mass in his recovery, that allowed him to even think about competing in the Tour was news to me, as were the exact procedures that meant the blood doping went unnoticed for so long.
Outside of Foster’s performance, the most striking moment in the whole film is when Armstrong is first introduced to the cocktail of steroids that would go on to power his victories. As his doctor/trainer Michele Ferrari (Guilluame Canet) injects him with EPO (the main drug in Ferrari’s program), it looks positively like the creation of a supervillain. Wearing a mask to test his oxygen production levels and cycling in place in a shiny lab, Armstrong gains the appearance of a fitness-nut version of Darth Vader, genuinely unsettling to witness.
Almost everything Foster does as Armstrong is at least slightly creepy. As he more and more becomes the man himself, he gets ever more unpleasant, spitting out repellent insults about his teammates’ wives and girlfriends, utterly convincing as someone who’s the main disciple in his own cult of personality. His flabbergasting arrogance makes for compelling viewing, and Chris O’Dowd and Jesse Plemons deliver solid supporting turns as the men who eventually brought Armstrong down. O’Dowd is Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, upon whose book the film is based, a cycling writer who saw obvious signs of Armstrong’s cheating long before anyone was willing to consider the possibility. Plemons, meanwhile, is Floyd Landis, the Mennonite teammate of Armstrong who was left on his own after testing positive for testosterone supplements. Feeling betrayed, and compelled by his faith, he eventually testified against the entire US Postal Service team.
For a film presented in the Debate category at the London Film Festival, The Program is incredibly one-sided, as is to be expected, given its source material and Walsh’s obvious distaste for Armstrong. Ben Foster, whilst doing it brilliantly, is given little to do besides being sociopathically horrible. For all its founder’s faults, the Livestrong charity has raised over half a billion dollars for cancer awareness and research, and you’d think that this inherently decent act would prompt a bit more soul-searching than the utter dismissal of Armstrong’s character found here.
There’s also an odd mistrust of the audience’s intelligence displayed throughout. About five minutes after we meet a character, we’re reminded of their names and told ‘they are important’ by a comic-book style freeze-frame. As a stylistic choice, it feels like Frears is going for a sub-Tarantino motif, and it simply doesn’t work in this film. ‘Mrs Robinson’ by the Lemonheads is also a bold choice of music in a montage scene, given that it’s already been used definitively by Scorsese in Wolf of Wall Street. Yet, the worst crime of The Program is that it’s often a bit boring, which should not be the case with this subject matter. Luckily for everyone else involved, Ben Foster’s performance pulls the film back from the brink, one of the most astonishing impersonations you will ever see on screen.