The Program dramatizes the rise and fall of cycling superstar Lance Armstrong. It begins with a journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) interviewing the up-and-coming Armstrong (Ben Foster), back when it seemed like the racer had little chance of becoming a dominant force in the sport. The film goes on to detail how Armstrong, following a bout with testicular cancer, decides to use performance-enhancing drugs, thus becoming a constant winning presence at the Tour de France. Walsh suspects that something isn't right, and pursues an investigation into the man and the brand that has made the man untouchable.
The movie is most interested in the constructed of a lie, in how an illusion is maintained even when there is ample evidence that the opposite is true. The film gains speed as it shows Armstrong unflinching in the face of various accusations, the world seemingly bending to his will as the public refuses to see what's right in front of them. This movie is less about Armstrong than it is about the world at large, how everyone is eager to accept a comfortable narrative of heroism, even when it seems too good to be true.
The Armstrong of this film is an outright sociopath. There is no attempt here to show a complex figure of moral ambiguity. This is just a man who wanted to win so bad that he was willing to lie to the whole world to do it, and relentlessly pursue anyone who called him out on it. This isn't the most insightful approach to depicting a real human being, but it almost seems fair given the information that's come out about the man. The problem is that he is the center of this film, and the one-dimensional depiction wears thin after a while. A protagonist tends to need more substance, and this film isn't willing to go there.
It is, in fact, the characters on the fringes that prove to be more interesting. Walsh's crusade against Armstrong is compelling stuff, and the film does a great job of making it out to be something more than just a battle of good versus evil. Even better is its portrayal of Floyd Landis, the teammate that eventually brings the whole enterprise down. The complex interplay between his upbringing and his ambition give the film a certain nuance missing in its central scenes. Compared to Landis, Armstrong comes off as a bit of an enigma, the film failing to shed much light on the person.
The film offers a competent production package. It moves as quickly as the races it depicts, zooming forward through time with plenty of momentum. The music choices are more than a little on the nose, but they do at least indicate pretty good taste in tunes. Ben Foster is pretty solid as Armstrong, though again, the writing doesn't make him out to be a very complex person. Chris O'Dowd and Jesse Plemmons fare better in much more interesting roles. Plemmons in particular is really establishing himself as the chief character actor of his generation.
The Program is very competently put together, but it suffers a bit from the thinness of its main character. In not having any sympathy at all for its protagonist, the movie struggles to arrive at a coherent point when all is said and done. Still, this is compelling stuff, the movie ably translating the arcane processes involved in this program into thoroughly entertaining cinema. But it does feel a little easy to make Armstrong out to be a villain. He does a good enough job of that himself. Perhaps the movie could have tried a little harder to find the humanity that can't be seen.