Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: John Hodge
(based on the book SEVEN DEADLY SINS by David Walsh)
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman, Edward Hogg, Elaine Cassidy & Laura Donnelly
From 1999 to 2005, Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de Frances. This astonishing accomplishment was made even more impressive due to Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer. Armstrong served as a role model for millions and massively increased the popularity of cycling, all while building a charity that helped cancer patients. I distinctly remember wearing a Live Strong wristband in my teenage years and also remember my mother talking to me about Armstrong’s inspirational autobiography. Lance Armstrong seemed like the feel-good story of the century. At one point, Hollywood was even looking to turn Lance’s tale into a big-budget blockbuster. It’s 2016 and a movie about Lance Armstrong has finally arrived…but it’s not quite a happy-go-lucky, inspirational story of overcoming impossible odds. Instead, THE PROGRAM is a drama detailing Armstrong’s cheating scandal and how he fooled the world.
Based on journalist David Walsh’s book SEVEN DEADLY SINS and the USADA Reasoned Decision Report, THE PROGRAM starts with 21-year-old Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) losing his first Tour de France to a team of dopers. Pissed off and desperate to win by any means necessary, Lance meets with Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) who steers Armstrong down the path of EPO (a drug that increases red blood cells). After battling testicular cancer, Armstrong returns to the Tour de France and wins! He went from cancer patient to Superman in a ridiculously short period of time. The public is eating it up, but sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) is skeptical. Thus, we see Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall, all while Walsh further investigates his unpopular idea that inspirational Armstrong is actually a doping fraud.
I haven’t been able to find the exact budget amount for THE PROGRAM, but A-grade production values suggest that it is sizeable. This easily might have been a highly touted nationwide release in the US under different circumstances. As the PROGRAM’s flaws become apparent though, it’s understandable why this received a less hyped VOD/limited theatrical run. The true story takes place between 1993 and 2013, so we have two decades of time in the span of 103 minutes with plenty of ground to cover. This means there’s lots of jumping through time as Lance wins seven Tour de Frances through various forms of doping and intimidation, all while David Walsh’s investigation sort of gets sidelined for the first half of the film.
While THE PROGRAM’s pace is fast for the first 3/4ths, it slows to a crawl in its final 25 minutes. This conclusion would have been effective, if there were more room for characters develop during the first 75 minutes instead of simply watching the events play out on a surface level. This isn’t to say the performances are bad, but the movie seems eager to rush through everything in order to keep the running time under two hours. In this sense, it feels like we’re watching the cliff notes version of a much better film. Lance Armstrong’s scandalous story is an equally fascinating one and it probably should have been given a longer running time to allow everything to properly sink in.
An unrecognizable Ben Foster is perfectly cast as Lance Armstrong. In order to get into character during the shoot, Foster actually took performance enhancing drugs. However, this level of method acting didn’t exactly come into play while I was watching the film, because I simply believed Ben Foster was Lance Armstrong. I forgot this was an actor playing a real person and that in itself is an impressive accomplishment. Foster captures Lance’s charisma (there’s a reason so many people loved him), his sociopathic nature, his nasty streak and even manages to capture a couple of sympathetic moments (one speech at a Live Strong rally is well-executed). He’s amazing in the role!
Foster’s is far from the only notable performance though. Chris O’Dowd (THE IT CROWD) is well cast as frustrated sports journalist David Walsh. Even though this character is sadly sidelined for the first half of the running time (only receiving four brief moments), O’Dowd has a much bigger part to play as Armstrong’s lies become harder to hide. Lee Pace is believably scummy as Lance’s team manager. Jesse Plemons is great as guilt-stricken potential up-and-comer Floyd Landis. Dustin Hoffman makes a brief, but welcome appearance as Bob Hammon. Finally, Guillaume Canet plays doctor/drug dealer Michele Ferrari as a bit of an Italian mad scientist…which seems appropriate because that’s exactly what Ferrari was. There is not a single bad performance to be found in this film.
I’m recommending THE PROGRAM if only to see Lance Armstrong’s equally infuriating/interesting story told through A-list production values, great performances, and a reasonable level of entertainment. The biggest flaw is the script’s uneven pacing, feeling too rushed in the first 3/4ths and dragging during its would-be emotional finale. However, the performances alone make this film worth a watch. THE PROGRAM is a good movie that might have been a great one under different circumstances.