The worst kind of biopic is the Wikipedia-checklist biopic; The Program, in retelling Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall, instead opts for the ASADA-report-checklist, chronicling the cyclist’s doping habits in careful detail but failing to offer a substantial supplementary storyline.
Admittedly, after a clunky cancer-centric introduction – think “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have testicular cancer” – director Stephen Frears finds a comfortable rhythm for a while as he renders Armstrong’s ascent with vibrant visuals, sharp pacing and a punky soundtrack.
It’s on the downward slope that things go awry, as the screenplay fumbles through various gears – David Walsh (Chris O
Dowd’s) attempts to uncover Armstrong’s doping, team-mate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) wrestles with his religious convictions, Dustin Hoffman sues people – without any clear focus.
The film’s best moments centre on the construction of “Lance Armstrong” – the evaporation of his frozen smile when the cameras stop rolling – but this is undercooked, underemphasised and weakened by Ben Foster’s sadly underwhelming lead performance, which vibrates with brittle psychosis but captures none of Armstrong’s considerable charisma. Rather than investigating the fertile middle ground between Armstrong’s deceit and his achievements, The Program instead opts for a disappointingly shallow portrait of a two-dimensional villain.
The Program is currently screening at the BBC First British Film Festival.