Ben Foster turns in a tour de force performance in Stephen Frears ambling biopic of sports’ greatest and most prolific cheat. Whilst the film takes its cues from official statements, David Walsh’s infamous book and real life events, embellishment is never far from the surface. Thankfully, Ben Foster grows something hateful and admirable at the heart of this storm.
The Program follows Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) and his rise through the cycling circuit. As he falls further and further behind European riders, Armstrong turns to doping and steroids to find an edge. A Sunday Times reporter, David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), becomes convinced that Armstrong’s rise is anything but natural. What follows is the need for truth in a sport mired by lies.
Stephen Frears’ The Program always dances on the line of being great. However, the constant need to leer at characters and dramatise certain events confine the picture to being simply good. In addition to this, John Hodge’s (Trainspotting) script sullies the sterile film with splashes of colour and comedy that feel misplaced and on the nose. This is a film that should have been told straight thus paralleling the truth its subjects actually fought to uncover.
Having said that, Ben Foster, one of the most underrated actors working today, saves the show. With the help of Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons and a melting performance from Lee Pace, Foster delivers a hauntingly wide-eyed and shaking Lance Armstrong. Each scene comes with the underlying thought that something is off with this guy, he isn’t quite right and Foster nails it to a tee. He saunters, grasps and travels through the spectrum of acting with this film. We see him command the room with talks on cancer, we see him suffer through chemo and we see him physically transform.
The aforementioned O’Dowd, Plemons and Pace all turn in good supporting performances as well with Plemons continuing to show his character acting chops.
In the end, The Program loses sight of being great and iconic as it bows to its director’s whim but the enigmatic and often scary Ben Foster saves it from being yet another typical biopic.
Score – B-