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Review: The Program

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“I have no interest in going up a mountain to watch chemists compete.” So says Chris O’Dowd‘s character, David Walsh, in Stephen Frears‘ Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. That most powerful of lines truly defines everything that was wrong about the way Armstrong decided to race in the Tour de France. For years Armstrong cheated and lied his way to the top while publicly expanding his brand of hero worship. The demise of this man, once considered a great athlete, then discovered deceitful and the subject of worldwide headlines, is the focus of this film.

The film tells the story of the disgraced athlete through the reporting of Irish sports writer David Walsh (O’Dowd) who makes a yearly trek to cover the Tour de France. His eyes focus on a new racer, whom he meets and interviews over a game of foosball. He is taken with the charismatic young man and immediately starts cheering for him. But this new racer, Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) while talented on a bike, just can’t seem to win. Then a fellow competitor tells him why and that he will never win unless he follows suit and starts to biologically enhance his chances.

In 1995, Armstrong and his new colleagues on the US Postal Service team start using EPO (erythropoietin) to increase their red blood cell counts. They can even get it over the counter in Switzerland. Armstrong starts winning, feeding his obsession with being number one. And then he gets diagnosed. He suffers through a brutal treatment for his testicular cancer and as soon as he is able he begins reconditioning to race. He then starts a new program under the supervision of Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) full of steroids, more EPO and more hormones. As Armstrong says, “After the disease, I never want to be that close to losing again.”

That’s all within the first half hour or so of the film.

For all the brief buildup, the film is just waiting for this man, who then starts the charity Livestrong and on the surface plays as a hero, to fall. Walsh starts to suspect that Armstrong is using and begins investigating in order to publish his findings and expose the man he now knows is a cheat. The film shows Armstrong using his charm and his cancer survival as a shield, able to deflect his allegations with word play and semantics. Walsh is blackballed. But, we all know how the story ends.

The Program is that rare film that could actually be better if it were longer and took its time. The first act of the film where we meet Armstrong feels blatantly rushed, frantic even, just so we can get to the meat of his drug use. The final act feels similarly almost incomplete. Frears really just wants to drive home how bad Armstrong really was, and he spends most of the film demonstrating this in spades with repetitive scenes of his drug use. But while the film is never boring, its pacing feels completely off. Besides from a few scenes, especially one where you see Armstrong charismatically interacting with patients in a children’s hospital, you only know Armstrong from one angle – his obsession with winning.

Frears owes a lot of what makes this film worth watching to his two leads. O’Dowd, who is probably better known for his comedic turns in roles from Bridesmaids and TV’s The IT Crowd, is an affable choice to play journalist Walsh. He is instantly likeable and his journey to bring down Armstrong makes him a character to cheer for. It’s a shame that he is largely absent from the final act.

But it’s the transformed Ben Foster whom you can’t take your eyes off of. His portrayal of Armstrong is nothing short of sociopathic. He can flip a switch and turn the villain to charmer in seconds. A scene where he is practicing his lies to the media in front of a mirror is intense and captivating and may be one of Foster’s greatest on screen moments. Recently admitting that he took a similar programs of drugs while playing Armstrong, no one can say that Foster isn’t committed to his role. It’s not just an uncanny impersonation, it’s an actor creating brilliance whenever he’s on screen.

Without O’Dowd and Foster (and also great support from Jesse Plemons and Lee Pace as Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis and agent Bill Stapleton respectively), The Program would have likely felt flat. But the animation and spark provided by Foster is enough to make this biopic an entertaining watch. For those truly wanting more in depth analysis, perhaps watching documentary The Armstrong Lie would be a better pick.

The Program is in UK cinemas today.

You can find me on Twitter.

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