Regardless of the identity of their subjects, many film biographies resemble one another, combing the high and low points of a remarkable person’s life over the tidy course of three acts, drawing simultaneously tragic and inspirational conclusions. By contrast, director Stephen Frears’s The Program actively resists the formulaic stasis that can grip even a competently made biopic, determinedly moving at all costs.
The film structures the story of disgraced Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) as a series of sharp, succinct beats that progress ever forward, mirroring Armstrong’s own superhuman determination and relentlessness. Several major events in the cyclist’s life—his battle with advanced testicular cancer, the first few of his several Tour de France wins—are dramatized within the opening 20 minutes of the film, in scenes so abbreviated as to suggest a montage that’s paving the way for the inevitable, fully sketched downfall. Except The Program never slows down, ultimately suggesting a singular montage fusing fame, egomania, tyranny, collapse, and qualified comeuppance into one prolonged procedural set piece.
There’s pointedly little in the film about Armstrong’s personal life. One of his marriages is acknowledged in a 60-second scene that cuts from his first meeting of his future wife to their wedding day. Armstrong’s children and relationship with singer Sheryl Crow are entirely elided. The incredibly vast reach of Armstrong’s fame, as an American conqueror of a European event, as a cancer survivor no less (a fact that no one was ever allowed to forget), is suggested through collages of news footage, but not really shown. Corporate sponsorships are passingly alluded to, and with an ominousness that indicates the filmmakers’ suspicion of the merging of corporate and athletic interests, but corporate influence on both the personal and professional textures of Armstrong’s life is scarcely explored. Even the races are relatively underrepresented, reduced to shards of occasionally thrilling images.
Instead, Frears and screenwriter John Hodge focus on Armstrong’s drug use, particularly of a performance-enhancing substance called Erythropoietin, or Epo, which is pivotal to increasing an athlete’s red blood cell count, boosting the amount of oxygen a body can carry through its bloodstream, enhancing endurance. Early in the film, physician and cycling coach Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) tells Armstrong than an athlete’s natural talent, and even their will to train, can only go so far, as their fate is encoded within their blood. This information offers a key to the self-rationalizing logic that enables many athletes on drugs, as they’ll be damned if they’ll allow genetic code to trump their drive and desire. The more insidious, and ambiguous, side of this self-obsession is embodied by Armstrong’s considerable work with cancer foundations, and with the gall he evinces by playing the role of a saint who says things like “We are the authors of our own life stories” while cheating, and suing anyone who attempts to reveal said cheating.
Frears and Hodge, then, are trying to render Armstrong in totality by emphasizing one element of his story, hoping to fashion a portrait of a man in full by fleeting implication so as to savor a theoretically more thrilling present, rather than retrospective, tense. In this fashion, The Program recalls the underrated Steve Jobs, which attempted to sidestep many biopic clichés by parring its subject’s life down to a few pivotal parallel moments. Foster, in certain close-ups, even coincidentally resembles Michael Fassbender’s Jobs.
But The Program is a failure of dramatic imagination. Frears and Hodge allow their contempt for Armstrong to cloud their understanding of him—an issue that’s intensified by Foster’s unsurprising decision to fetishize the cyclist as a passive-aggressive monster (and exacerbated by the supporting cast, which collectively reduces a variety of characters to suit the assorted typecasting of the respective actors playing them). As presented here, Armstrong has no stature, because he’s never allowed to be anything other than a legendary drug-taking cyclist. The Program is flashier and more self-conscious than many biopics, but it’s ultimately just as hollow.