“Everybody knows the fight was fixed,” husks Leonard Cohen over the closing credits of Stephen Frears’ “The Program,” a straight-spinning dramatization of cycling champ Lance Armstrong’s much-scrutinized fall from grace. It’s a rather literal application of Cohen’s 1988 track “Everybody Knows,” its cryptic AIDS-era undertow repurposed here as a warning against unkeepable celebrity secrets. Inadvertently, however, it also expresses the weakness of an otherwise swift, proficient film: Everybody does know Armstrong’s story by now, and John Hodge’s screenplay excavates few factual or emotional nuances that weren’t covered in Alex Gibney’s thorough 2013 doc “The Armstrong Lie.” Styled in semi-documentary fashion itself, with a committedly clenched lead performance by Ben Foster that never quite catches up to its distant subject, “The Program” reps an unpredictable commercial endurance test of public fascination.
If the title “The Program” puts auds in a televisual frame of mind, that wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate. Two years ago, the TV-schooled Frears gave a complex sports icon the HBO treatment in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”; with its modest formal frame and brisk production values, his latest could as easily have been fashioned for the smallscreen. Of course, the same could be said for Frears’ 2006 Oscar winner, “The Queen,” which nonetheless caught filmgoers’ imaginations as a besottedly generous showcase for a movie star of imperious presence.
A fine actor Ben Foster may be, but he’s no Helen Mirren, and “The Program” doesn’t cede itself to him in the same way; his Armstrong, projecting a surface as glib and hard and wipe-clean as that of the man himself, can be a difficult figure to see even when he’s in the foreground. (In one moment of metatextual playfulness, a glory-era Armstrong is asked to comment on the potential casting of Matt Damon in his biopic. It’s a sly allusion to just how far the cyclist’s public image has shifted over the years — Damon is hardly an actor called to mind by Foster’s wily translucency.)
The film does an effective job of repackaging the Armstrong brand in its opening reel. Danny Cohen’s camera indulges in the impatient, zooming moves and aggressive angles becoming of a brash young athlete; combined with a hot primary palette, the images recall nothing so seductive and deceptive as an energy-drink commercial. Foster gets the sarsaparilla slide of Armstrong’s Texan accent just right as he’s introduced speaking in ready-made slogans: “My mom didn’t raise a quitter,” he tells Sunday Times sportswriter David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) where the film begins, at the time of his first Tour de France in 1993.
The question of what Armstrong isn’t is more easily answered here than that of what, or who, he is. Drawn principally from Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” Hodge’s script largely avoids speculative drama, veering tactfully away from its subject’s personal and domestic lives. Armstrong’s former wife, Kristin Richard, first appears in a snappy meet-cute; they’re married in the next scene, whereupon she exits the film entirely.
Rather, “The Program” frames its narrative as something akin to a criminal chase, with Walsh — an early skeptic regarding Armstrong’s winning prowess — as the dogged investigator and audience proxy, and Armstrong as his elusive quarry. On these terms, it makes sense to seal off the latter’s inner life, though imagined emotional access is what might have separated the film from previous reportage on the subject; for better or worse, we’re left to ponder what, if any, degree of psychological strain or moral conflict the champion felt over his infamously concealed doping habit.
Working at a businesslike pace, Hodge and Frears glide through Armstrong’s early rise through the ranks of the circuit, identifying the many key players with talking-head-style subtitles. His 1996 testicular cancer diagnosis disrupts proceedings in as transient a fashion as it seemingly did Armstrong’s own life, as Foster’s already remote take on the character recedes into a brittle, intriguingly self-styled facade: “You meet yourself along the way,” he says of the cancer battle, though he appears to estrange himself from others in the process. He’s no patsy, though the film does position Armstrong as a kind of inhuman test subject — “no longer confined to physiology” — for Michele Ferrari (played with slithery elan by Guillaume Canet), the Italian physician and coach who designed the doping program undertaken by the U.S. Postal Service team.
The golden years, during which the recovered Armstrong racked up seven Tour titles and attained A-list celebrity status, are briskly covered. Editor Valerio Bonelli’s multiple montages approximate the superficiality of sporting sizzle reels, perhaps reflecting the slick ease with which Armstrong’s camp sold the world on a tale that was, for all the man’s natural prowess, a shade too good to be true. (“Go out there and live the best life story you can,” he says, and it’d be hard to argue that he didn’t.) “The Program” doesn’t pass judgment on the misdeeds portrayed as explicitly as Gibney did in his documentary, even via the character of Walsh: As played by a typically disarming if oddly cast O’Dowd, the Irish journo appears to chase personal vindication as eagerly as he does ethical reform.
Instead, the chief bearer of conscience here is U.S. Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), whose transition from suggestible young buck to whistleblowing martyr is the most emotionally loaded arc of this otherwise cool-headed affair. In the film’s richest performance, Plemons beautifully teases out the ambiguities and potential hypocrisies of Landis’ own moral position, tracing Armstrong’s slippery downward spiral almost in spite of himself.
Like a number of promising frictional elements, however, his story is curtailed in a disappointingly rushed, perfunctory conclusion, which checks off the headline-making stages of Armstrong’s unraveling with scarcely an allusion to the personal consequences or wider fallout; his landmark confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey meshes archive footage with Foster’s prickly performance to anticlimactic effect. Walsh’s redemption is similarly muffled; ditto Dustin Hoffman’s brief, crumpled appearance as aggrieved promotions company chief Bob Hamman. Rare is the prestige biopic that feels altogether too short, but after 102 soundly paced minutes, “The Program” retires with half a hill left to climb.