Although the opening would have you deceived, this is not a sports film. Directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena) and based primarily (but loosely) on the investigation by David Walsh, the film opens to Ben Foster narrating over beautiful scenic shots of a cyclist on the Alps. The shots are backed by heroic music scores, and Foster speaks of his love, his passion, and his determination for the sport that he dedicates his life to. Despite how standard of an opening this is for the genre, Frears pays closer attention to the backstage politics of the Tour de France rather than the Tour de France itself.
The Program presents itself as both a biography of Lance Armstrong and an investigative thriller in the same vein as All the President’s Men (Dustin Hoffman even stars in the film, albeit briefly). It gives the film a dynamic and smooth pacing that glosses over the tropes that plague so many films of the sports genre. Instead it allows the conflict to stem from David Walsh’s determination to prove Armstrong’s use of steroids and Armstrong continuing to pass countless drug tests while maintaining a positive public image.
However, it should be reiterated that this film is loosely based on reports and investigations. No more apparent is this than in the depiction of Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) whose monologue on steroids being “a gift from the heavens” sounds closer to that of a Bond villain than it does of anyone in reality. Nor does the meta-referencing of a possible Lance Armstrong film produce any humour. The idea of Matt Damon playing Lance, apparently funny to the film-makers, feels groan-worthy more than anything else.
This film should be treated as a drama rather than a biography. Armstrong is presented as a fallen hero, whose passion and determination forced him into illegal drug use and he becomes a sympathetic villain. Likewise, Walsh is the lone hero who is determined to discover the truth despite all the odds. In real life, Walsh became suspicious of Armstrong after appearing to threaten Christophe Bassons during one of the Tour’s stages. In the film, Walsh knows immediately upon Armstrong’s victory that Armstrong used drugs to win.
Historical inaccuracy is fine if the purpose is to explore a certain theme, which Frears does, but so many are put on the screen without being fleshed out or expanded upon. At one point, Armstrong says: “I just tell them what they want to hear”, but the idea is never explored beyond that point. Likewise, ideas of passion, determination, and how far one is willing to go to accomplish their ambitions are simply not fleshed out. Despite its easiness to watch, the experience falls flat and is unimpressionable.
But then there’s Ben Foster, who is finally given the opportunity to show he can lead a film. Foster (who reportedly took steroids for the role) is perfect at balancing charisma, sympathy, intimidation and aggression without letting one mode dominate the other. This is Foster’s film, and if there’s any reason to go see it, it’s for him.
In a Nutshell: Subverting the tropes of the sports film makes this drama nicely paced and easy to watch. However, it is let down by its failure to expand upon specific themes and ideas.