Review: ‘The Program’ takes too many shortcuts on Lance Armstrong story

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in the biopic "The Program."

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in the biopic “The Program.”

(Momentum Pictures)

A rise and fall doesn’t get much more meteoric in either direction than cyclist Lance Armstrong’s, who overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times, yet was stripped of his titles, money and reputation when he came clean to doping after years of speculation. He’s both hero and villain, which should make any dramatization of his story tantalizing, yet Stephen Frears’ “The Program” fails to add anything new, or penetrate the soul of so crafty a cheater.

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That’s a shame, because the casting of Ben Foster is inspired, his edgy dynamism ideally suited to Armstrong’s forceful, smirky stewardship of a rule-skirting performance-enhancement regimen, his crafted public persona as a charity icon, and the arrogant indignation when his integrity is questioned by dogged British reporter David Walsh (an equally righteous Chris O’Dowd). Foster draws you in, but he’s rarely given a scene longer than four sentences in John Hodge’s highlight-driven screenplay, barely getting to craft an insightful portrait beyond shortcut facial expressions.

Frears plays up the story’s melodramatic strains, to haphazard effect. A French sports doctor (Guillaume Canet) extolling science’s ability to mold athletes plays like the prologue to a sci-fi monster movie, while later scenes of Armstrong threatening the disloyal — including fellow teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) — suggest warmed-over gangster sagas. The appeal of cycling, meanwhile, is hardly conveyed beyond standard-issue race montages and the occasional paean to competitiveness from Armstrong. “The Program” pedals fast, but the end result is little more than a psychologically shallow recap reel.



“The Program”

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA rating: R for language.

Playing: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino. Also on VOD.