The most intriguing part of Stephen Frears’ The Program, a biopic charting Armstrong’s rise and fall from grace based on Irish sports journalist David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, is that it is just as much a condemnation of cycling culture as it is Armstrong himself. It wasn’t so much one man who fooled the world by winning the Tour de France seven times, it was that a culture of corruption made his fraudulent successes practically inevitable. Lance Armstrong cheated, but his ultimate crime was that he cheated better, more often and more successfully than his competitors. Before him there was the Festina Affair when a French cycling team was busted smuggling Swiss steroids over the Belgian border. And then came Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor credited for pioneering many modern day doping techniques. Mocking Lance’s physical build, physique and cell count, he explicitly told him that his only chance for winning was taking erythropoietin (EPO), a banned kidney hormone that increases red cell levels. Galvanized by humiliating losses at Belgium one-day races and his recent victory over testicular cancer, Armstrong made a deal with the devil. How could he refuse? Everyone was doing it.
Comparisons with Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) are inevitable: both are about journalists breaking stories about massive corruption cases that shook the world. The journalist in this case is Walsh, the man who first noticed Armstrong as a promising up-and-comer who found his sudden post-cancer transformation into a cycling machine suspicious. But whereas Spotlight only gradually revealed the full extent of the Catholic Church’s crimes, we spend The Program watching Walsh try and uncover things about Armstrong that we already know. Chris O’Dowd brings a quiet ferocity to his performance as Walsh, yet I can’t shake the feeling that his storyline was superfluous since it wasn’t used to reveal new information about the case and it altered what was essentially a story about a man molded by corruptive outside forces into a battle of wills between two larger-than-life men. Well, one larger-than-life man.
Much like Frears’ other films, The Program shines best in its performances. Ben Foster disappears into his role as Armstrong, no mean feat considering how his character continually vacillates between feelings of guilt towards his deceptions—particularly when confronted by teary-eyed cancer survivors who claim that he inspired them, despair towards their necessity, and wide-eyed, vengeful megalomania when challenged or threatened by friends, foes and even teammates. Armstrong may have been a monster of the Tour de France’s design, but at a certain point he became the monster he himself was willing to become for the sake of glory.
One other performance dominates the film: Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s one-time teammate and Tour de France champion whose admissions of doping were instrumental in Armstrong’s downfall. Make all the “Meth Damon” jokes you want, he’s a legitimate talent and his slow-burn turn contains fiery embers of restrained fury. He’s proving himself to be one of those actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Steve Carell who can speak volumes with nothing but a silent stare.