Lance Armstrong's Twitter bio refers to him as the winner of seven Tours de France—a reminder that we can all be whoever we want to be online. On September 11, Armstrong was pissed. Ben Foster had just told the Guardian that he doped to prepare for his lead role in The Program, Stephen Frears's new film about Armstrong's rise and fall. In response to the news, Armstrong tweeted, "That's some serious bullshit right there," showing all the restraint and nuance that has come to define both that platform and the cyclist's public persona.
The Program makes several references to Armstrong's real life being like a movie, and Armstrong's pushback might as well be considered a part of the final act. At one point in the film, Armstrong riffs with teammates about which Hollywood star should play him in his triumphant life story. It's more than just a cute, self-reflexive moment—it underscores how too good to be true the Armstrong saga was.
That story, now utterly debunked, really is like a movie: promising young athlete gets cancer, comes back to suddenly dominate sport, and continues to do so for most of a decade, becoming an icon for the cancer awareness movement in the process. Of course, Armstrong was later revealed to have been a cheat, virtually from day one. That's still quite a narrative arc, but so far it hasn't been put on film quite as powerfully as it should have. The prolific documentarian Alex Gibney made a quickie attempt in 2013 with The Armstrong Lie, which didn't chronicle a whole lot except the filmmakers' naïveté. The market, as it does, is correcting this oversight. Of the three announced biopics, The Program, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is first out of the gate. The screenplay, by Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge, is an adaptation of Irish journalist David Walsh's 2012 book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.
Ben Foster is impressive in his mimicry of Lance's facial tics, although he mastered Armstrong's psychopathic qualities more than his intermittent charm. The result is a technically precise but otherwise empty impersonation that reveals talent and hard work, but little in the way of insight; it is, in short, pure Oscar bait, and not undeserving of consideration by those stilted standards. Lee Pace, as the cyclist's agent, plays pretty much the same smooth-talking suit that he does in AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, and does just as well. Casting Jesse Plemons, forever Landry from Friday Night Lights, as Armstrong teammate turned successor turned snitch Floyd Landis looks like desperation—there aren't that many goofy looking redheads in Hollywood, after all—but turns out to be one of the most engaging elements of the movie. Dustin Hoffman also shows up, although it's hard to say why, exactly.
Phil Liggit's commentary is heard throughout the race scenes, and using the Voice of Cycling adds some authenticity. Liggit was an Armstrong booster to the very end; at one point in the film we hear him parrot one of Lance's denials mid-race. It's good diegetic detail, but it's also another example of how pervasive and infectious Armstrong's mythology was before he got busted. Stories this good are hard to let go.
Armstrong is believed to have started doping in '95 or '96. He maintains he raced clean in his final comeback Tour, in 2009; experts say that tests indicate otherwise. The Program tracks these developments chronologically, as doctors and athletes mix and match EPO, steroids, blood doping, testosterone, and cortisone in an effort to fool testers. The film gains momentum in its second half when it switches into Zodiac-like journalistic cat-and-mouse mode.
There are so many episodes to convey in this story, however, that Frears doesn't really get around to doing anything with the material. The script does an impressive job of at least alluding to all the different factors at play through a decade and a half of sporting history, but there's a strangely selective brand of accountability at work. Institutional blame is broadly skirted; the emphasis is squarely on the US Postal Service team, not on the doping that was rampant among the majority of pros of the period. When the entire Festina team was found guilty of EPO use during the 1998 Tour de France, the revelations rocked the sport, but Tour riders had been taking something or other—booze, amphetamine, opioids, steroids—to help get them over the Alps and across the line since the event was inaugurated, in 1903. This context could've made the film richer and less black and white.
The Program doesn't play up the psychological drama of Lance's rivalries, particularly as it pertains to his rivalry with fellow disgraced doper Alberto Contador. With so much ground to cover, the film is content to name-drop rather than demonstrate how Armstrong gained powerful friends and political allies. There's no Motoman or Greg LeMond; there's not even a cameo by Sheryl Crow.
The most telling and most bizarre omission, though, is that of actual bike racing. Almost all the racing in the film takes place in the mountains—there are no sprints, virtually no attacks, and no time trials. The Program is also the story of Walsh's falling out of love with the sport, and this is reflected in how little the film celebrates cycling itself. If this is true to the source material, it also seems like a missed cinematic opportunity. It doesn't help the storytelling, either—Frears' cyclists don't train, they just dope and race. Still, some of the most infamous Lance moments are here, from the explosive Sestriere climb in the '99 Tour, to the chase and intimidation of Filippo Simeoni. (The cycling consultant on these scenes was David Millar, a Scottish racer who was banned from 2004-2006 for PEDs.)
Save for a couple brief formalistic moves, the script doesn't take too much license, which ultimately ensnares The Program in mediocrity. Short of opting for an impressionistic treatment or choosing to focus on a smaller window of time, it's difficult to portray Armstrong's actual power, or convey how many careers and lives he touched, and invariably damaged.
In the end, The Program may be as good as a biopic released while the real-life actors are fresh in the public imagination can be. Even if it's incomplete, the film ends up being an indictment of celebrity, power, and the dangerous ease and appeal of the cult of personality. Before the final credits roll, the filmmakers acknowledge the USADA's Reasoned Decision as an essential resource. That engrossing document is the real, original thriller; it's hard to imagine a film treatment that could compare. Then again, Lance didn't like that one much, either.