‘The Program’ Accidentally Makes A Case For Forgiving Lance Armstrong

Make no mistake, Lance Armstrong does not come off well in Stephen Frears’ The Program, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. He’s the epitome of a cocky jerk. None of this should come as any surprise if you’ve seen Alex Gibney’s excellent The Armstrong Lie … or just at all “paid attention.” Armstrong did not personally endear himself to many people over the course of his seven now-stripped Tour de France titles. Even so, while watching The Program, I started to understand why he used performance-enhancing drugs.

When I played Little League baseball, I honestly thought I’d one day be playing second base for the St. Louis Cardinals. I think everyone who plays a sport as a child believes they have a chance to make it “all the way.” And why not? We’re told that with the right skills and a lot of hard work, anything might happen. But that’s not really the truth. Imagine being the best baseball player in high school (I was somewhere closer to “the worst”); imagine being the absolute best at something, yet you can’t compete with the other athletes at the next level because these lesser athletes are using performance-enhancing drugs. This would be infuriating. And faced with this decision, I couldn’t sit here and tell you, “Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t take a pill so I could at least be on a level playing field with everyone else because they are all taking pills.” Talent and hard work alone won’t do it anymore.

The film depicts a young Armstrong (played by Ben Foster, who makes a pretty great Armstrong) as a talented rider who’s nonetheless always being beaten by European competitors using EPO: a drug that increases the amount of red blood cells in a human — the more red blood cells, the more oxygen that’s carried through the bloodstream, the greater a rider’s endurance. Doping is rampant in cycling; by doping, the film suggests, Armstrong was only leveling the playing field. And after Armstrong agrees to start doping, of course, he starts winning. Then he’s diagnosed with Stage 3 testicular cancer.

The current public narrative of Armstrong’s life now tends to forget this happened, which is weird, because it was this event that defined him for so long. The Program depicts the gruesome treatment Armstrong undergoes – including a fairly graphic brain-surgery scene – and Armstrong comes off as sympathetic throughout this stretch of the film.

The Program treats Armstrong’s subsequent charity work in a mixed way. He’s portrayed as truly caring about the cancer patients he visits. In one scene, Armstrong blows off a prior commitment to spend the day at the hospital with a dying boy. This moment comes off a little too on the nose, but I’m glad it’s there, because it’s the only time Armstrong comes off as a nice human being in the final two-thirds of the film. Yet the film also depicts Armstrong using his charity as a shield against allegations — Armstrong had a bad habit of basically saying, “Well, kids are dying from cancer,” anytime someone asked him about performance-enhancing drugs.

Most of the questions come from David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd), a reporter for the Sunday Times who printed the initial allegations against Armstrong. Armstrong would sue and win a settlement against the Sunday Times, which turned out to be a mistake: If Armstrong would have just shut up and not brazenly attacked “the media” or other riders who dared to question him, Armstrong probably would have gotten away with all of this. And all he would have “gotten away” with was doing what many, many others were doing. But the film makes it clear just how brazen and unlikable a person Armstrong became. In one scene, Armstrong berates a reporter for daring to ask about doping. In the next he’s shown injecting some sort of substance so he can pass a random drug test.

The Program is a serviceable retelling of a story that most already know. My favorite “based on true events” movies are the ones in which I’m not as familiar with those true events. As good as Foster is, the most fascinating aspect of The Program is Jesse Plemons’ performance as Floyd Landis. Landis’ story is much less well-known than Armstrong’s. Learning more about how he seemingly came out of nowhere to win the 2006 Tour de France, then had it stripped from him after testing positive for high testosterone levels, felt like fresh information. (At least fresh to a cycling layman like myself.)

But even so, while watching The Program, I couldn’t help but think, “What’s the point?” Do people not know this story? Is it to further shame Armstrong? I don’t think it’s the latter, but it mostly succeeds in doing that. Armstrong isn’t an easy person to like, but this movie almost feels like unnecessary piling on. I’m kind of over the Armstrong outrage and I hope there will someday be a public role for him again. He did inspire millions of cancer survivors. The fact that he beat cancer, then won a Tour de France, even with using performance-enhancing drugs, is still a minor miracle. Even though this movie wants me to dislike Lance Armstrong, I can’t help but think even more that maybe it’s time to forgive him.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.