Stephen Frears’ Lance Armstrong movie, The Program, is not the worst movie I’ve seen at TIFF—that’s a toss-up between London Fields and Our Brand is Crisis—but it is probably the most disappointing. Frears has a knack for biopics (see also: Philomena, The Queen), but The Program feels a little…soft. The film doesn’t shy away from portraying Armstrong as a win-obsessed asshole, but the thing that really makes him such a piece of work isn’t that he cheated, or even that he cheated for so long. It’s that he left a scorched-earth trail of devastation in his wake in pursuit of his cheating. The lying, the cover-ups, that was just the tip of the iceberg. He destroyed lives and livelihoods to protect himself, and THAT is the element missing from The Program.
The film begins with Armstrong’s early days in racing and his first encounter with journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who judged Armstrong to be a good cyclist with potential, but not the kind of potential that could result in a Tour de France win. The Program is really at its best when focused on Walsh, whose disillusionment and disappointment in Armstrong makes a handy audience analog for how the world at large felt when his doping scandal eventually exploded after years of denials. I wish the film had been more about Walsh and the sh*t he went through after accusing Armstrong on the record about doping, and also how the sports media became complicit in Armstrong’s cover-up.
O’Dowd is really great as Walsh, making the third good journalist portrayal I’ve seen at TIFF (alongside Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight and Cate Blanchett in Truth). He has both the dogged determination of a good journalist and the personal indignation of someone who loves a sport and sees it being destroyed, and the way his peers turn on him after Armstrong puts pressure on the sports media is more interesting than yet more scenes of Armstrong having blood drawn. And his performance is much more natural than Foster’s, which veers into unintentional comedy territory more than once.
Ben Foster’s performance as Armstrong is plenty committed—like TOOK STEROIDS FOR REAL committed—but you are very aware that he is Acting! and in some scenes it’s just too much, with
Kirk Lazarus Foster mugging so hard it looks like he’s about to shatter his jaw. The Program would have benefitted from a little less Foster and more O’Dowd, and if the “program” it referenced was less the technical ins and outs of how Armstrong cheated—all of that is a matter of public record anyway—and more about the campaign of intimidation he ran against anyone who got in his way.
I can’t get over Foster actually taking steroids to prepare for this role. It’s completely bananas. Dude, just pretend like you’ve taken steroids. The point of acting is to pretend. This is like an actor who’s playing a cancer patient undergoing chemo to better understand the experience. But you know what this is making me wish for? I want Ben Foster and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to make a movie together. Can you imagine that? “In this scene, Ben, you will be hit by a car.” And then Foster would insist on actually being hit by the car himself, and Inarritu would drive the car, and Foster would do the rest of the film while in traction but you guys, it would be the MOST REAL performance of all time. Tropic Thunder. Is. Real.