A careening crash course on the most publicly disgraced athlete since O.J. Simpson, Stephen Frears’ Lance Armstrong biopic is the rare film of its kind that doesn’t spare even a sprinkle of sympathy for its subject. A more compelling movie may have explored the reasons behind the champion cyclist’s behavior, but this artless portrait of an American tragedy would rather reinforce your worst suspicions: Yes, Lance Armstrong is, in fact, a titanic asshole.
You know the story, and The Program tells it to you straight: A fiercely competitive (and frustrated) young racer is transformed — almost overnight — into a winner, gaining so much momentum that testicular cancer barely slowed him down. Riding the gust of an inspirational narrative, Armstrong found a new gear, founded a ubiquitous charity, and reentered cycling as square-jawed golden boy by winning the first of seven consecutive Tours de France. Who would dare accuse a survivor of using performance-enhancing drugs? What kind of person would put those chemicals into their body after enduring the horror of chemotherapy?
Based on journalist David Walsh’s bloodthirsty book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, Frears’ adaptation unfolds less like a character assassination like an assisted suicide. At one point, the speed demon brags about Hollywood’s interest in making a movie about him, puckishly predicting that charming A-lister Matt Damon will land the role. Instead, we get unnerving character actor/dead ringer Ben Foster, whose commandingly snide performance is strong enough to keep the wobbly narrative on two wheels. He has no compunctions about stretching Armstrong so far that he turns into the Daniel Plainview of his sport —the film’s richest moment finds him pedaling up to a competitor and threatening “I have the money and the power to destroy you.” If he wasn’t on such a strict diet, the athlete would’ve drank everybody’s milkshake.
Unfortunately, The Program seldom slows down for long enough to let Foster or his co-stars sink into their roles. The only remotely mutable character in the film is Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), a devout Mennonite who falls prey to the seductive powers of the dark side. (Dustin Hoffman’s turn as a swindled promoter could have been cut entirely.) And while Frears is no stranger to teasing tremendous warmth from real-life figures — see The Queen and Philomena — the director struggles to dramatize the vileness that compelled him to this particular subject. Melting into an endless glut of racing montages, The Program picks apart one of the greatest wipeouts in modern sports and fails to salvage anything of value from the wreckage.