Ben Foster did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Lance Armstrong in The Program.
The Program is a film that struggles to work in a rather strange fashion leaving the always underrated Ben Foster in a rather odd position. Now a bad film being centered around a performance is a rather common occurrence, but that's not what The Program is. The Program falters in part due to extremely rushed pace as it tries to cram in every detail of Armstrong's life including his first Tour de France, the general culture of doping in the sport, Floyd Landis(Jesse Plemons)'s own similair story, and David Walsh(Chris O'Dowd)'s trials trying to uncover all of this. This actually presents even more of challenge than just questionable material as Foster is barely given any time to cover any given facet of Armstrong's life as the film moves from one aspect to the next in rapid succession. To make things even harder the film almost has a belligerent tone towards Armstrong, not that he's not a man who deserves some scorn, but the film does feel somewhat reactionary. The film has a certain tone almost as though it's saying "You know this is what Armstrong really was like?", as though to be the opposite of the original most likely inspirational film planned for the man. So where does that leave Ben Foster? Well yet again without a true break out, but that's never made Ben Foster phone it in before.
Now just to examine the film's kind of absurd pace in a matter of the first eighteen minutes of the film we get Lance before his first Tour De France race, losing to dopers, taking the dope himself, winning a portion of the race, getting diagnosed with cancer, going through his cancer treatment, trying to rebuild himself, then going to the mastermind behind the doping to become a true champ. This is all within also frequently cutting away to David Walsh covering the tour as well. It's more than a little ridiculous and it would be easy to see how an actor would not be able to find their grounding for his character in time. Ben Foster pulls it off though. Before the first race Foster brings the enthusiasm of a real athlete as his claim of just wanting to ride his bike seems to be the truth. With the loss though Foster reveals the palatable desire in Lance to simply compete, and is able to show even his choice in doping as surprisingly sympathetic through his depiction of just a desire to be able stand against the other dopers. The original choice, despite it being rushed over, Foster manages to bring some vulnerability within the decision that in no way comes from just a crazed ego. At this point Foster importantly barely portrays any ego in Lance, rather just a man who wants to succeed.
This begins to change when he begins to win and Foster's excellent in crafting the development of his personality through the excessive confidence he portrays after winning part of the race. This though is quickly changed when Armstrong coughs up blood and finds out he has cancer. Foster is indeed heartbreaking in the scene as he shows the reality of the situation crush that earlier confidence in a matter of seconds. In the cancer scenes Foster continues to excel in portraying the damage of the treatment physically as well as mentally. Foster realizes the weakness in the man as he painfully tries to remind himself that he was the champ. There are some great moments for Foster on the road to recovery and he never lets the pace of the film trip him up. In these scenes Foster manages to find the needed pathos for Lance as he portrays just how vulnerable he has become due to his cancer. Even in one of the scenes where he must interact with the dopers' mad scientist played by Guillaume Canet doing everything his power to ruin the scene with his own performance, Foster is able to save it to a certain degree through so vividly realizing how spent Lance is emotionally suggesting the way this state of defeat sends him to only go down further in the path of doping.
Before he relaunches his bike career, now with a specific strategy, and an agent, Lance also wants something else. That being his own organization to help in the fight against cancer. Although the scene is set up as though it wants to be slightly superficial with the way his intention is broken down by the agent, Foster does not play it as such. There's only a very real passion in his voice when he mentions the idea, and in no way attempts to alter Lance's intention with his performance. Lance quickly makes his way back in the tour de France and with his team of dopers easily squash the competition. As the victories mount up Foster grows Lance's ego brilliantly because he does not make this a distinctly negative thing at first. When Lance is in competition or trying to hide his drug usage Foster brings out this larger than life charm, making Lance a guy who just seems happy to be alive. However the problems of the ego develop just as quickly as in more private moments, or when someone questions his legitimacy. Foster is so perfectly smarmy. He carries the right pompousness that gives the sense of entitlement as though he's above being questioned even.
Foster does not let the negative elements overwhelm his performance, though the film seems to desire the opposite at times. When Lance gives a speech in front of his organization Foster succeeds in being downright inspiring by bringing back only that real passion once again as Lance is fighting against cancer. He stands as the great sportsmen he should be, and in these moments Foster again only allows this to be true. An outstanding moment for Foster again comes right afterwards as Lance ponders on his struggle with cancer again. Foster reveals well just again that vulnerability in the man whose been through a terrible ordeal, and even though the dialogue almost suggests he's faking it Foster does not play it that way. There's another scene where Lance visits children with cancer and takes time to visit one patient in particular. Again its hard to shake the feeling that the film almost wants to undercut this in some way. Foster seems to refuse this once again by depicting only a genuine empathy in Lance as he looks upon the sick boy, as Lance's own memories of his treatment seem to be flooding through his mind by Foster's reaction. Foster does not allow this humanity in Lance to be forgotten and makes it a pivotal part of who Lance is as a person.
Foster allows that to be kept in mind as he only goes down the path of furthering his ego, as he has to deal with continued allegations while he continues to dope up. Foster is the right spokesman in any scene where he answers questions, as again his method to conceal the truth is as though the question should never have been asked in the first place. There's a terrific undercurrent of aggressiveness that Foster brings in these moments as though Lance will ride right over the accusers just as he does the competition. One of my favorite scenes of Foster's performance is when he practicing in the mirror repeating the phrase that "I've never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs". The vanity of the man just oozes out through Foster's performance as he manages to make this reassurance so pathetic, as he shows a man building his own image in the moment, an image of someone who simply is above it all. Foster only builds the the fake image as the film proceeds as the accusations keep coming and he only keeps denying. I think when one heard of Foster being cast in the role they probably thought this would where Foster would shine the most. Well Foster does indeed and is amazing in just creating the raw out of control self-importance. The man only gets bigger and Foster delivers this all the way through bringing that trademark intensity right when it is needed. Foster only keeps growing this showing that Armstrong does not start to think he's as great as his fans think he is, but rather greater. Foster plays this as a man only going faster and faster as he begins to believe he can accomplish anything, anything at all, though along with this he only seems to become more and more hollow. The film rushes Lance's confession, as there is basically one scene then suddenly he's confessing. The dialogue in the scene that sets this up even makes it sound like Lance's ego makes Lance do it, that way he's personally cleaning up cycling. Again Foster brings far more nuance to the role and makes sense to why Lance's confesses. It is an astonishing scene for Foster as he presents a man who at this point just wants to stop as he seems to have nothing left of himself anymore. Foster is even heartbreaking, after having been the villain, by playing it as a moment of self-reflection as though Lance knows all his work has simply made him false icon. Foster even with the film ridiculous pace never misses a step effectively showing were Lance is at any given point, and never making his personal arc feel disjointed. He never loses sight of the character finding the right moral complexity in the man rather than being a one note despicable cheater. The Program is not a great film about Lance Armstrong, but Ben Foster gives a great performance as him.