The Program: Programmed to Win, by Ian Brill
Stephen Frears’ biopic/expose of Lance Armstrong starts off like one of the Nike commercials the real Armstrong used to star in. But as Armstrong (played by Ben Foster) talks about his drive to win, we cannot help but feel a sense of the sinister to what would otherwise be a motivational speech. Armstrong’s victory path was a tainted one, quite literally. He injected his bloodstream with dope to become a better cyclist than any other contender in the Tour de France. What kind of mind keeps trying to win, even after he’s rigged the game? Foster, Frears, and screenwriter John Hodge try to answer that question.
I am hesitant to call The Program a biopic even though it unfolds like one, concerned as it is with the major moments in Armstrong’s life. The film covers almost two decades, starting with Armstrong’s first ride in the Tour de France, his battle with testicular cancer, his return to and subsequent victories at the Tour, culminating in the revelation of his cheating. But Frears has created a funhouse mirror reflection of the hagiographic biopic, and the sports biopic in particular. All of Armstrong’s moves, even before his cancer diagnosis, are fueled by the desire to win at all costs, and cheating is always an option. One could imagine Will Ferrell and Adam McKay telling the same story, and with only a few clicks to the left it could sit alongside the stories of Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby. The Program is not quite a comedy, but like many films that are, it follows a purely selfish character who does not mind screwing over those close to him to achieve his aims.
What defines the film is Foster’s amazing performance. He plays Armstrong as a complete sociopath. Given the challenge of playing a thoroughly irredeemable character his all, it pays off handsomely. It helps that Frears and the film’s make-up and wardrobe departments have made it so that Foster is an uncanny match for the real Armstrong. Early on, there are scenes of Armstrong cycling that could be mistaken for actual Tour de France footage. Foster has Armstrong’s Texas drawl down, but what’s more is that he flashes that winning smile with the right amount of devious confidence. On the surface you have the perfect picture of an all-American winner, and indeed it’s hard to tell where “the act” stops and the real Armstrong starts. Armstrong still sounds like a true blue team captain when he goes about his underhanded practice. When injecting refrigerated packets of his own blood back into himself (to fool drug tests) he tells a teammate “it’s how we win, it’s hard work.” Foster melds all facets of Armstrong, no matter how contradictory, into a total and riveting portrait of a villain.
The other stand-out performance is Jesse Plemons as Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis. Whereas Armstrong seems to show no inner conflict, Landis is the exact opposite. A Mennonite who was forbidden to cycle, only to go on to make the Tour de France, Plemons plays that conflict with quiet and effective focus. Late in the film there is a scene where Landis addresses his fellow parishioners after he’s been accused of doping. He did indeed continue what Armstrong taught him to do, but denies it while standing in his church. Plemons plays all these levels with a captivating energy.
But while The Program is a great showcase for Foster and Plemons, the rest of the film proves itself to be journeyman standard. The beautiful racing footage found at the start never reappears. Frears has the film shot in a no-frills style and the editing, so vital in a film like this, never rouses the audience, and the surrounding performances offer little to buttress it. Chris O’Donnell is the other lead in the film. Playing David Walsh, the journalist who wages a one-man campaign against Armstrong, his performance feels like it’s from the type of biopic that Foster and Plemmons transcend. While he’s perfectly fine, he’s not putting forth anything as impactful as Foster and Plemmons. We know that Walsh fights for the truth because the movie constantly reminds us, but the performance offers nothing additive.
The Program could have been an inoffensive and forgettable effort, but is saved by Armstrong and Plemmons providing distinct and competing portrayals of what it really means to “win at all costs.”