If there’s such a thing as Lance Armstrong truthers — which, for entertainment’s sake, I kind of hope there is — they’ll be none too pleased with Stephen Frears’s biopic of the seven-time Tour de France winner.
The Program shows Armstrong (Ben Foster) making a conscious decision to start doping five minutes in, a performance-enhancing act he rationalizes as the leveling of an uneven playing field. The then-average cyclist (this is 1994) merely hopes to catch up to his peers, many of whom he knows to be on the juice; seeing Armstrong make this choice rather than learning about it in hindsight humanizes the disgraced champion, though not for long.
Frears treats his subject’s unlikely recovery from stage-three testicular cancer a few years later as the breaking down and rebuilding of an athlete from the ground up, with Armstrong 2.0 being leaner and more efficient than his old self could ever hope to be. The dynamic between Armstrong and the doctor who starts him on PEDs is like that between Frankenstein and his monster, the scientist turning the newly loosed racer cartoonishly evil. A charlatan through and through, this Armstrong threatens fellow riders during the Tour before mugging for the cameras. He connives to crush his enemies and cynically endorses products he thinks are terrible. (All that’s missing for Foster, usually so measured in his embodiment of difficult characters, are a monocle and twirled mustache.)
The logistics of maintaining such an elaborate lie for so long makes for a fascinating procedural, but they’re too often lapped by extensive reenactments of contests — whether on the Tour or in a courtroom — whose outcomes we already know.
Directed by Stephen Frears
Opens March 18, AMC Empire 25