The opening shot of director Stephen Frears’ follow-up to the wonderful Philomena sees world-famous cycling cheat Lance Armstrong pedalling uphill by himself on a seemingly endless road. This beautifully framed scene smartly represents the character’s impossible-to-meet standards of satisfaction while perfectly illustrating the isolation he created for himself. The act also represent the film itself: procedural and forgettable, but not a total waste of time.
There are a number of different factors to the sporting scandal that could – theoretically – pierce the skin and inject some high-impact drama, but the film feels like it only taps the vein. What was going through Armstrong’s mind to motivate his cheating? Nothing much more than win, win, win. Were the multiple court cases as deep and morally mixed as, say, The Social Network? Not really – Armstrong just lies until he can’t lie anymore. How engrossing was their sophisticated doping plan? Well, it’s like Breaking Bad if everything went just swell for the first four seasons.
While these separate moments make for interesting factoids in relation to the real event, they often feel drab rolled up into a feature film. As a result, The Program wiggles back-n-forth between ‘Oscar contender’ and ‘dramatised teleprompter’.
Even though his character’s arc is more of a flat-line, Ben Foster gives his Armstrong one hell of a pulse with a performance that does more than the script probably allows. In a crucial scene that highlights lead and director in perfect sync, Foster delivers a superb under-the-pressure monologue whilst Frears’ camera paints the character’s unfocused mental state by swaying unpredictably from side to side without ever leaving his face.
The pair do as good of a job as anyone could expect putting this story to screen. But a world-shattering controversy does not mean there’s a world-shattering story to tell.
‘The Program’ Movie Times
Recommended Films About Smug Famous People: The Social Network, Citizen Kane, The Wolf of Wall Street