Strong Acting but Hasty Plot Marks Armstrong Biopic

Photo courtyes of Christopher William Adach, Wikipedia

Released in 2015 internationally, “The Program” – a film about Lance Armstrong’s unprecedented rise to the top of the cycling world and his sharp descent – has finally come stateside. “The Program” follows Armstrong, played by Ben Foster, from Tour de France contender, to cancer survivor and superstar.

With a runtime of one hour and 43 minutes, the film ambitiously sets out to tackle nearly 20 years of Armstrong’s life. While it’s an admirable undertaking, there’s just not enough time to properly tell the entire story. Had the film been longer, each aspect of Armstrong’s life could have been properly dissected, which could have in turn made for a stronger cinematic experience.

As for Foster, the 35-year-old thespian already has many impressive roles on his resume and in “The Program” he turns in yet another gem. Known for his intense approach, Foster seems to dial back his trademark fervor in favor of a more nuanced performance. Foster doesn’t just play Armstrong: he becomes him, helped by the fact that the two share a physical resemblance. 

It wasn’t a one-man show, though, as other actors rose to the occasion: French actor Guillaume Canet plays Dr. Michele Ferrari, the man who introduces Armstrong to doping and his self-assured performance was a pleasure to watch. Meanwhile, Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, Calvary) – who has shown he is capable of handling nearly any role, from comedy to drama – shines as Irish sports journalist David Walsh. His portrayal of Walsh’s frustration with colleagues handling Armstrong with kid gloves is as authentic as it gets. Also turning in a solid performance is young actor Jesse Plemons, who portrays former Armstrong teammate and 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis. As many will remember, Landis was stripped of his title after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, and Plemons does a nice job of showing the uneasiness of Landis during that time.

Despite top-notch acting, the film fails to reach levels of greatness. This is due to director Stephen Frears’ decision to hit upon every aspect of Armstrong’s career and subsequent scandal only minimally. If he had taken the time to really tell the tale of Armstrong’s coverups, manipulations and bullying tactics, the film would have been better served. 

The film also doesn’t spend much time on the fallout after Armstrong's eventual admission to doping. Instead, as credits are about to role, viewers are offered snapshots of some of the main characters alongside a paragraph or two of what happened to them following the scandal. 

Perhaps the only real letdown of the film is the fact that it doesn’t pay much attention to the actual racing scenes. While viewers get a few obligatory shots of Armstrong riding during the Tour de France, not much time or detail is given. But Frears did make sure to include shots of Armstrong crossing the finish line, hands raised in victory as so many people remember, a powerful image now, considering his downfall.