WRITTEN REVIEW – The Program (2015)
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: John Hodge
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace & Dustin Hoffman
Music: Alex Heffes
Release Date: October 16th 2015
If there’s one movie production company that creates the most mature and hard-hitting biopics right now, it’s Working Title. Whether it’s ‘Frost/Nixon‘, ‘Rush‘, ‘The Theory of Everything‘, ‘Legend‘ or ‘Everest‘, Working Title have earned awards recognition and box-office success by having a strong catalogue of “true story” movies as well as popular genre material such as the “Cornetto Trilogy”, the ‘Bridget Jones‘ franchise and the ‘Nanny McPhee‘ franchise. One reason their biopics resonate is because they’re willing to portray their leads as flawed, sometimes immoral individuals if the story requires it even if the person is still alive or their family members are around, unlike films like ‘Diana‘ and ‘The Iron Lady‘.
As a result, it seems like Working Title’s ‘The Program‘ is a deliberate attempt at antagonism. Based off Journalist David Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” which chronicles world-renowned cyclist Lance Armstrong’s performance-enhancement scandal which led him to win the Tour De France seven times. During the scandal, Armstrong would use his immense wealth and success to drown out any criticism or accusations with lawsuits and public shaming. If this film had been made in the early 2000s then the studio probably would have been sued out of existence. Thankfully, Working Title have the free reign to tell the story of a liar and to explore the impact, both good and bad, or what a lie of such a scale can have.
Spanning his cycling career from 1987 to 2012, ‘The Program‘ centres on Lance Armstrong (Foster), an American athlete who is a decent rider but unable to win any of the major races he competes in due to his natural physique. However, in 1996, at the age of 25, he is diagnosed with testicular cancer but manages to recover after chemotherapy and surgery. Once he recovers, he gets back on the bike and starts winning every race he competes in, including the Tour De France 7 times in a row. But Irish Sports Journalist, David Walsh (Dowd) of the Sunday Times thinks his success is too good to be true and believes he is using performance enhancing drugs. But with Armstrong able to cover up his lies with his fame, his inspirational recovery and charity work, what will it take for one of the most famous athletes on the planet to be brought down?
The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is one of those stories that you literally could not write. Okay, it was written into two books by David Walsh, “L.A. Confidential: Lance Armstrong’s Secrets” and “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”…and it was also a documentary by Alex Gibney released in 2013 called ‘The Armstrong Lie‘ (which is a great watch, incidentally)…and it was covered across the world by hundreds of news outlets…
Okay, so maybe it IS a story that you literally can write, but what I mean is that this story HAS to be real because all of the narrative stars aligned to create a fascinating story you couldn’t make up. A cyclist’s need to be the best pushes him to take untraceable performance enhancing drugs allowing him to win one of the most brutal sporting events in history SEVEN TIMES in a row and he was also a cancer survivor who started his own charity which raised millions of dollars and inspired people across the world that not only could they survive the terrible disease but they could come back better. It also happens that this story revolves around someone with such an ego and with such a need to not just win, but DOMINATE the sport he’s in that he will do whatever it takes to get to the top and stay there, even if it means destroying everyone around him, including his team mates.
While in the 1990s and the 2000s, it wasn’t officially known if Lance Armstrong was “doping” (the term used for using performance enhancing drugs such as EPO; which increases Red Blood Cell production in the body so more oxygen/fuel can circulate and was undetectable at the time), but in ‘The Program‘ it’s shown clear as day so the audience can feel the frustration of Armstrong’s friends, family, team-mates as well as the companies being cheated by him. It’s a vicious cycle of defeat for them – EPO couldn’t be detected so he couldn’t be caught using it, Armstrong’s success was so mainstream that it was bringing millions of dollars into the cycling industry, he could use his wealth to smack down anyone claiming “defamation” and he could use his prior experience with cancer and his “LiveStrong” charity as a shield to block accusations.
Not to diminish Armstrong’s cancer survival, or his LiveStrong charity which genuinely has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the pursuit of a cure for cancer, but he DID use it as a way to divert attention away from the allegations made against him that turned out to be true.
It also didn’t help that practically everyone competing in the sport in the 90s was “doping” meaning that if one of Armstrong’s fellow riders turned him in, they’d likely be exposing themselves and every racer competing in the Tour De France. This is especially ironic because the first Tour De France that Armstrong won was named the “Tour of Renewal” in order to restore audience’s faith in the sport by ensuring that every racer was clean after widespread doping in previous competitions.
Like I said, you couldn’t write this stuff.
So if everyone was doping, then what set Armstrong apart? In short, his indomitable spirit. That may sound inspirational, but his forceful personality was used more as a weapon than a motivator. He wanted to win more than anyone, he had the best sports Doctor, Michele Ferrari, and he had team members willing to support and help him reach the top spot on the awards pedestal by any means necessary. He knowingly lies to millions of people for over a decade and it takes a special brand of person to pull something like that off. At one point, during a race, he cycles alongside another racer who testified against him, puts his hand on his back and says “I have the money and the power to destroy you” before racing ahead and staring directly into a camera and zipping his lips (an actual, televised moment that has been perfectly recreated in ‘The Program‘).
“But Trilbee!”, I hear you cry. “I could just watch ‘The Armstrong Lie‘! What does ‘The Program‘ offer apart from a compelling story?”. In my eyes, that’s already enough to justify a viewing, but with ‘The Program‘ we have a brilliant cast led by Ben Foster as Armstrong. Foster has had many supporting roles and television jobs but it’s with ‘The Program‘ where we could see his career elevate to the next level. Not only does he capture Armstrong almost flawlessly, down to his inflections, body-language and attitude, but he also actually took performance enhancing drugs during filming to get into character.
It’s not an easy role in the context of the film because ‘The Program‘ spans decades and Ben Foster has to play a 16 year old Lance Armstrong and a 38 year old Lance Armstrong, but thanks to clever make-up and an ever-evolving performance, he manages to do it. Not only that, but his body changes a lot throughout the film from being a limber athlete, to a cancer patient, to a more bulky cyclist once he starts regularly doping. It’s an incredible, gradual transformation and the movie regularly cuts between re-creations and actual, documented news footage of the Tour De France races as if to flaunt its confidence. Thankfully, its confidence is justified in both the production and especially in Ben Foster.
Foster may not have an incredibly showy role in terms of dialogue or “Oscar moments” (which means he probably won’t get recognised come awards-season, even though he should AT LEAST be in the discussion) but his quiet fury, monstrous egotism and complete NEED to win and be the best is brilliantly captured on screen, especially towards the end when his world slowly starts to crumble around him. But Lance Armstrong is not just portrayed as a terrible human being as he does moments of genuine empathy. Of course he started his charity, but he would visit children’s hospitals to try and motivate terminally ill kids. At one point he’s going to be late for another meeting, but decides to stay by the bedside of a boy, practically on his deathbed and ill due to rigorous chemotherapy.
Which prompts the biggest question that the movie asks; was this lie okay?
Armstrong practically cheated the sport, discredited countless innocent individuals and did scam corporations out of sponsorship deals (if he won his races illegitimately with the products he was sponsoring, then he’s violating their contracts) but on the other hand he inspired many people to get on their bikes and root for cycling as a sport. Chances are, Lance Armstrong single-handedly made cycling as big as it currently is because of his inspirational story and many people were inspired and touched by his story. As David Walsh puts it; “He’s recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman!”.
Upon my initial viewing, I was a bit dismayed to see that ‘The Program‘ ends without displaying the public outcry to Armstrong being outed. This was a frustrating piece of omitted closure to the movie, but upon reflection I think the reason for that is that the viewer has just seen these events unfold very accurately (as far as I can tell there aren’t many historical inaccuracies in ‘The Program‘) and what the public thinks of this well-documented outing doesn’t matter. What matters is what YOU think. You’ve seen the events, both the good and the bad. You’ve been given a window into Lance Armstrong’s head. Do YOU think the lie was okay?
One person who certainly didn’t was David Walsh who was the journalist who fought hard against Armstrong to try and expose his lies. Despite being proven right years later, Walsh faced a lot of backlash initially and the Sunday Times was even forced to publicly apologise to Armstrong when they were sued for defamation…which later turned out to be completely correct. Chris O’Dowd is primarily known for his comedy turns on TV with “The IT Crowd” and “Family Tree” but has been attempting more drama recently with ‘Calvary‘ and even a Broadway production of “Of Mice and Men”. He’s a surprisingly strong presence in ‘The Program‘, so much to the extent that you wish the movie focused on him more. After all, ‘The Program‘ IS based off his book. O’Dowd is kinda like the Irish Martin Freeman where he’s able to capture a normal, every day man in a compelling way and it’s great to see he can do that in comedy as well as drama.
The rest of the supporting cast are strong despite the fact it may seem like Guillaume Canet is over-acting as the Italian Doctor who got Lance into doping in the first place. However, if you watch interviews with the doctor in question, Michele Ferrari, you’ll know that he is a pretty eccentric person in real life. Jesse Plemons is great as fellow doping cyclist Floyd Landis, Denis Ménochet and Dustin Hoffman are great in supporting roles although the only female presences in the movie, Elaine Cassidy as Betsy Andreu and a few other minor female actors have very little to do or work with.
Stephen Frears’ last movie, ‘Philomena‘, while superbly written and acted, felt a bit like a high-budget TV movie at times. With ‘The Program‘, however, the big-screen treatment is more than justified. ‘The Program‘ is a big, globe-hopping story, spanning decades with hundreds of extras, gorgeous locations taking the audience along many of the most important races of Armstrong’s career. As mentioned earlier, special mention must go the editing as actual news footage, is edited into the re-creations to allow the story to unfold in front of the audience allowing them to have an unbiased judgement towards the end of the film because they’ve seen both the public’s perception of events as well as the finer, personal details.
The landscapes are great, the cycling sequences are well-shot and look great on the big-screen, though the green-screen work is a bit sketchy when Armstrong is on the victory pedestal. Apart from that nit-pick, the only production hiccup comes in the editing of the sequence of events (whether it’s the video editing or the script, either way) such as Armstrong’s lawyer being introduced in a flashback, despite the flashback in question taking place at the same point in time we just saw 5 minutes ago. It’s tough to explain, but basically Armstrong wins a race and the scene ends, then 5 minutes later we get a flashback to Armstrong winning the race again and the Lawyer getting introduced at the end of the scene. Why structure it in this way? Just give us the chronological events.
There’s also an out-of-place flashback involving Michele Ferrari and another flashback where Armstrong reflects on his time confined to a wheelchair when undergoing cancer treatment despite telling an engrossed audience that he fought and walked around the hospital. It’s a lie that the audience themselves should have been able to pick up on and didn’t need the movie to spell it out for them. There are also a few scenes that really should have been trimmed or left for the DVD such as a montage involving extensive coffee-drinking which makes the 103 minute movie feel a little bit longer than it really needs to be.
‘The Program‘ continues Working Title and Stephen Frears track record of incredibly complex and compelling true-life events by getting deep at the core of what makes them relevant and interesting and allowing the audience to engage with them by making them ask the hard questions. Ultimately, that’s the reason to watch ‘The Program‘ even if you’ve watched the documentary ‘The Armstrong Lie‘ as well as seeing Ben Foster’s superb lead-performance as a man so committed to dominating his sport that he pretty much defeated himself. It’s well put together despite a few structural hiccups and pace-disrupting edits and more than justifies the big-screen treatment thanks to strong production values and a great ensemble cast. ‘The Program‘ drags one of the most infamous sports-icon’s name through the dirt…but it actually does it pretty fairly and lets the audience be their own personal judge.
But maybe you shouldn’t blame Lance Armstrong for taking part in one of the biggest sports scandals in recent history. Maybe you should blame that same sport for allowing him to do it in the first place.
I give ‘The Program‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 23rd Oct 15