The biopic of the fallen cyclist hero demonstrates that reality is indeed stranger than fiction.
In the opening scene of The Program, there’s a telling exchange between Irish sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) and a then 21-year-old Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster). Over a game of foosball, Walsh asks Armstrong if the arduous training that cycling demands had pushed the young athlete into a certain level of self awareness, to which Armstrong essentially replies with a vacant stare: “I just want to ride my bike.”
It is this lack of self awareness combined with a ravenous hunger to win at all costs that makes former Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong a tour de force study in narcissism. Contextualize his ego within the big-moneyed, flashy endorsement wheeling and dealing of competitive team sports, and the result? Scandal on an unconscionable level. You really couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
Using David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong and the 2012 U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report as guideposts, director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) takes us on an exhilarating ride into the extreme highs and lows of Armstrong’s personal and professional life — from his mediocre athletic prospects, his battle with cancer, his dope-induced ascent into winning seven Tour de France titles buffered by his demigod status as founder of the Livestrong Foundation, being outed as a bullying cheat by his former cycling teammates and associates, and culminating to his shocking confession to Oprah Winfrey.
To better understand his role as the disgraced cycling hero, Ben Foster (X-Men: The Last Stand), recently confessed that he secretly took performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) — similar to Armstrong’s doping program — during filming. In fact director Frears and the rest of the cast only discovered Foster’s secret just days before The Program premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. (Thankfully, the actor took the PED’s under medical supervision.)
“I took a calculated risk, with a doctor supervising, and what I came away with is that drugs work — they work,” Foster said. “You can just keep going. Coming off those drugs is the difficult part. That’s where your health concerns will come in. And it took a while for me to right myself. But that was a calculated risk and part of the joy of the job, I suppose.”
Whether you consider his decision admirable or foolish, Foster pulls off an ambitious, manipulative Armstrong quite convincingly in the film, although if you had the chance to see the revealing documentaries, The Armstrong Lie (2013) and Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (2014), you wonder if Foster could’ve added a bit more alpha aggression into his role.
Foster’s intensity is matched, and at times alleviated, with the smart and refreshing quippy charisma of actor Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, This Is 40), who plays Walsh, the journalist whose unapologetic suspicions of Armstrong helped uncover the sophisticated doping program and bring the athlete’s career to its shameful end. Among the few notable Walsh supporters you’ll see in the film is risk insurer Bob Hamman, played by Dustin Hoffman, who, despite having a conspicuously small part, adds some nice star power to the drama that unfolds.
However, the story of Armstrong’s downfall wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the pivotal role of former cycling teammate Floyd Landis, played by Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad), who becomes his foil. While neither men are angels, director Frear interweaves Landis’ strict Mennonite Christian upbringing into the backdrop and depicts him as having a crisis of conscience after he himself is stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for doping allegations. (In reality, it actually took Landis until 2010 to confess that he, Armstrong, and the rest of their U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling team had taken PEDs to win their championships.)
With all of its moving parts and motley crew of characters, The Program ends on an abrupt note — or at least it feels that way. It’s as if Frears takes you on a thrilling race down a mountain and suddenly slams on the brakes. The ending leaves you unsettled, which is probably the point and what makes the film worth the watch.