Review: The Program (2015)

Director: Stephen Frears

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons

Release Date: 16th October 2015

Oscar nominated director Stephen Frears has become quite eponymous with British biographical dramas, and though Lance Armstrong is hardly British The Program has all the makings of a typical Frears film. However, this is not a film which shares the tonality of The Queen or Philomena, but feels more like a Danny Boyle effort, which in some ways offers a resounding challenge to our expectations but also disappoints in many.

Everyone knows about Lance Armstrong. He was the American legend who recovered from cancer to become one of the most successful cyclists of all time. He was an American hero, until the revelation that Armstrong was not just implicit, but practically in charge of allegedly ‘the most sophisticated doping program’ in the history of sports. This is the story of how it happened. Or at least it should have been.

The Program was far too linear to offer a truly compelling biopic, presenting merely a snapshot across the life and career of one man which, entertaining as it was, felt more like a Panorama special, albeit without the Jeremy Vine narration.

The story begins with Armstrong as a promising rookie in the cycling world, on the cusp of entering the pantheon of greats but still a relative unknown. We are rapidly introduced to journalist David Walsh, played by the excellent Chris O’Dowd, and rich doping champion Michele Ferrari, followed by a whisk through his cancer diagnosis and treatment, and then back to cycling where Armstrong has accepted and embraced doping before the first act really gets started. It’s fine as a bland walk through the career of someone we are expected to be very familiar with, but it lacks to care and attention which was injected (pun intended) into Frears’ other work.

We are then taken through the following years as he embeds a culture of doping within the American team and lies his way through seven Tour de France titles until his ultimate, inevitable demise as Walsh finally gets the evidence he needs to publish his story and set off a chain of events which leads to Armstrong’s humiliating confession to Oprah.

The biggest mistake in this story was the creative heads not really understanding what they were making a film about. This should have been Spotlight. It could have been Spotlight. Instead it was a lackluster cat and mouse story with little direction and the bias which turned The Fifth Estate into a farcical biopic. This was Walsh’s story, and had it been told through him the film would have been more tense and much more dramatic. From the offset this Armstrong was a bad guy, willing to do and say whatever it takes to get to the top and stay there – there was no falsifiability, no credible counterargument and no layer to the story. It became a two hour reconstruction no more or less entertaining than a cable crime documentary. And make no mistake there’s nothing wrong with those, but there’s a reason we don’t pay £10 a time for them.

Ben Foster was remarkable as the main character, and his conflict with O’Dowd’s Walsh is believable to watch. Both do extraordinary justice to Frears, whose ability to direct strong character dramas remains unquestioned, but it is put to a story which is entirely lacking in depth and value to warrant his or his cast’s services.

However, despite all of the above, The Program was actually not bad and, even for the least sporty viewers, makes for an enjoyable and easy watch. Frears may not have replicated the glory of his previous work, but there’s no need for him to reach for the EPO just yet.


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