Few biopics are so relentlessly hostile toward their subject as The Program is toward Lance Armstrong. Brilliantly played by Ben Foster as an opaque wall of arrogance and entitlement, Armstrong has no inner life to speak of in this film—no dreams beyond winning the Tour De France, no remorse when he’s finally caught after years of cheating via steroids and blood doping. As a young man in the ’90s, he’s nakedly ambitious and little else; later, when the rumors start flying, he spends his time methodically practicing his lies in the mirror and casually intimidating anyone who dares to challenge those lies. It’s a bold, remote, practically inhuman performance, which gets hilariously underlined at one point when Armstrong mentions that the supremely likable Matt Damon is in talks to play him (in another movie that never got made). There is nothing remotely likable, or even relatable, about Lance Armstrong in The Program. He’s just an ass-covering asshole, which is the sole interesting aspect of an otherwise pedestrian Wiki-history.
Part of the problem is that the film never quite settles on a point of view. Adapted by John Hodge (Trainspotting, Trance) from journalist David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit Of Lance Armstrong, it seems at first as if it might be as much about Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, as about the cyclist. But Walsh disappears from the movie for long stretches, only resurfacing when new allegations emerge. Toward the end, emphasis shifts over to Armstrong’s former teammate, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), who finally, conclusively blew the whistle when he confessed (after years of denials) to his own use of performance-enhancing drugs. Mostly, though, The Program just hits the expected beats of Armstrong’s career: his early association with shady Italian trainer Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), who would later be banned for life from all sports; his seven consecutive Tour De France victories and the illegal means by which he achieved them; his retirement and eventual comeback; the Oprah Winfrey interview; etc.
All of this material was previously covered in documentary form by Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, and neither Hodge nor director Stephen Frears (who’s become the definition of anonymous professionalism) bring anything revelatory to their fictional version, which is singularly, stubbornly uninterested in exploring Armstrong’s psyche. All the same, there’s a certain fascination to watching Foster deliberately withhold any suggestion of emotional complexity, as if Armstrong were the soulless, scheming villain in a corporate drama, rather than a former American hero (with his own cancer foundation!) who admitted to cheating years after the fact. The movie makes no attempt to justify or even rationalize his actions—“everyone else was doing it, so I had to” barely makes an appearance—and abruptly ends as soon as the roof caves in, with a sort of “mission accomplished” sneer. It’s a rote hatchet job, rehashing information that virtually everyone already knows, but at least it facilitates one of the year’s oddest and gutsiest performances.