Published on November 25th, 2015 | by Admin
The Program – Film Review
Reviewed by Conor Bromhead on the 24th November 2015
StudioCanal presents a film by Stephen Frears
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Cenet, Jesse Plemons and Dustin Hoffman
Screenplay by: John Hodge
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Music by: Alex Heffes
Edited by: Valerio Bonelli
Running Time: 103 mins
Release Date: 26th November 2015
Few have such a publicised and scandalous rise and fall as Lance Armstrong, the cycling icon and seven-time Tour de France winner whose achievements were stripped away with the revelation of his systematic performance-enhancing drug use. The Program is the third cinematic telling of Armstrong’s downfall in as many years after the screen documentaries The Armstrong Lie (2013) and Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story (2014). Ben Foster adorns the yellow shirt as Armstrong in a dramatic telling that follows his early career, his battle with cancer and subsequent rise to stardom. Chris O’Dowd co-stars as David Walsh, a Sunday Times journalist who suspects foul play in Armstrong’s career and the events of the film are based upon Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, an account penned by the real life Walsh. Director Stephen Frears used a similar approach in his previous film Philomena (2013), with a journalist following a central subject.
The Program picks up at the start of Lance Armstrong’s international career with a meeting between him and Walsh, establishing the dynamic between the two. Walsh’s curiosity in Armstrong alongside Armstrong’s raw determination and will to win. Ben Foster delivers uncanny performance, during intercuts with archive material he and the real Armstrong are indistinguishable save for the standard definition footage from the last twenty years. In preparation for the role, Foster reportedly took performance-enhancing drugs; as a direct result of this or not Armstrong’s intense, fish-eyed stare is eerily captured and the film’s greatest moment is a nuanced performance of Armstrong’s near-breakdown after he’s found out. Ultimately, the film presents a balanced view of Armstrong: he doesn’t come across as sympathetic but is an intensely mesmerising figure nonetheless.
The supporting cast of Armstrong’s similarly unsympathetic cronies also have solid performances with Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s riding mate, Dustin Hoffman as Bob Hamman and Guillaume Canet as Michele Ferrari, who was the Italian physician trying to get Lance to the top, legitimately or otherwise. Merely by the virtue of not being a drug-abusing cheat Chris O’Dowd’s warm performance as David Walsh is the heart of the film, the genuine underdog when compared to the cheating Lance.
Far too much time is spent intimately showing Armstrong’s drug use, a large chunk of the film’s runtime amounts to little more than a montage of drugging followed by a montage of racing. Those who are squeamish to injections and transfusions will likely be overwhelmed, those who aren’t will be bored after being subjected to it scene after scene after scene. Time wasted on drug-use could have been used fleshing out Armstrong’s personal life. His entire marriage is squeezed into a single brief exchange, asking his wife if she enjoys Italian food and bicycles, which is immediately followed by a shot of them leaving a church after their wedding.
Worst of all, in rise and fall biopics it’s the fall that is often more interesting but The Program only tells the rise and after Armstrong is found out, the film abruptly ends with the famous Oprah Winfrey interview. Much of the very interesting and very public aftermath is omitted. Exchanging one or two of the many scenes set in the drug bus for more varied events would have greatly benefited the film. Instead, the aftermath is only covered with the biopic staple, dull ‘where are they now’ text alongside still portraits.
When taking the other films about Lance Armstrong into account, The Program lacks the imperative punch of The Armstrong Lie. That film was originally a scrapped documentary in favour of Armstrong, which transformed post-scandal. The Program doesn’t offer enough outside of what can be found in the other films or real life interviews and reports, these will also give further insight into the aftermath which is still ongoing. However, if dramatisation is your preference over documentaries there are some outstanding performances in The Program, in spite of its focus issues.
Summary: Ben Foster is both accurate and powerful as Lance Armstrong; however, the film is a bumpy ride with focus issues.