Hot Take: The dressing down of Lance Armstrong’s greatness. A well told tale of deception that’s easy to look at but a little impersonal. Then again, Lance Armstrong wasn’t known for being open.
If you still have some empathy in you for Lance Armstrong, The Program is probably not going to sit well. The film starts by telling of Armstrong’s battle with cancer and rise to cycling greatness while honing in on what is often referred to as the greatest deception in modern sport. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called Armstrong’s meticulously planned effort to cheat the “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
As for the film, The Program spends more time on the how and very little on the why. Other than to focus on Armstrong (played brilliantly by Ben Foster) as a megalomaniac willing to do and say anything to satisfy his craving for winning, there’s little time spent delving into his psyche. Instead, there’s about a fourth of the movie devoted to writer David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) whose book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong (along with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s comprehensive report on Armstrong’s cheating) is the foundation of the film.
The Program doesn’t seem to care much for why Armstrong did what he did. Well, the film doesn’t seem to care much for Armstrong at all, actually. Instead, it feels like a piling on. Even in his darkest moments, while fighting testicular cancer, Armstrong isn’t painted in glowing terms. As he trains to get back to racing still devastated by the effects of cancer, the film mocks his efforts by having an amateur biker riding along the street blow Armstrong away and then verbally make fun of his effort. The glimpses of some semblance of humanity are sparing and overshadowed by his many flaws including defrauding the sport of cycling and the world as he continued to perpetuate the lie that he was clean.
Like Armstrong or not, the film’s clinical telling has similarities to Spotlight in it’s scenes capturing writer Walsh and his actions in his pursuit of Armstrong’s dishonesty. The cycling scenes look fantastic on the screen and director Stephen Frears pieces together a flashy look at the criminal deception of Armstrong and all of the many accomplices. Unfortunately, there’s no depth and maybe there isn’t any depth to the man the film portrays as a one-dimensional monster who will stop at nothing to win. This is where The Program diverges from Spotlight in it’s storytelling as Spotlight organically captures the reasoning behind the deception and the emotional impact of the fraud while The Program falls short. It doesn’t make it a bad movie but it prevents it from being a great one.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Ben Foster
As Armstrong, Foster paints the picture of a monster who will do everything to win and stop at nothing in his pursuit of accolades and glory.
- The Cycling Scenes
The shots of the Tour de France are well shot and cinematographer Danny Cohen does some great work in capturing some beautiful shots.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Entirely One Sided
Similar to the way last year’s Black Mass painted Whitey Bulger, The Program buries Armstrong. Actually, Bulger seemingly possessed a little more humanity in Black Mass than Armstrong in The Program and one piled up a massive body count while the other cheated to win a few races and raise millions for charity. If you wore your yellow bracelet to the movie, you might not make it to the end.
- Selective Transparency
The film panders to the “victims” of Armstrong’s lies and deceit while avoiding any discussion of who may have capitalized from bringing down the cheating champion.