Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd & Guillame Canet
Synopsis: An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong’s performances during the Tour de France victories are fuelled by banned substances. With this conviction, he starts hunting for evidence that will expose Armstrong.
Rating: 15 Duration: 103 minutes Release date: 15 February (UK)
Between 1996 and 2005, professional cyclist Lance Armstrong led an incredible life. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which he overcame, won a Bronze medal for the United States of America at the 2000 Olympics and won an incredible seven Tour de France titles. Yet, by 2012, all of his professional accolades and titles would be torn up after Armstrong was found guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs. It was a bitter blow for cycling and its fans and meant Lance Armstrong’s previous good name was tarnished forever.
The Program, directed by Stephen Frears, deals primarily with Armstrong (Ben Foster). Focusing on his surge through the ranks of cycling’s best performers and overcoming cancer, while being hounded by a dogged member of The Sunday Times; David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who senses a rat when the once adequate racer suddenly turns to a world beater. Frears, makes the decision that the audience already knows the outcome of this whole sordid affair and focuses on the how and why of Armstrong’s complete willingness to cheat his way to the very top of professional cycling.
Knowing the ending doesn’t necessarily take away from The Program. In fact, it actually helps the film and instead of the audience focusing on the did he or didn’t he of the whole thing they can instead focus on how Armstrong went unpunished for years. From hidden blood packs stored on team buses, to duping official doctors and intimidating other riders, Armstrong and his US Postal Service team were a bullying and frightening group that no one dared cross.
Their tactics would delay officials from finding out what they were up to, and when they did Armstrong would step in, flex his muscle and persuade them that finding him guilty would be the wrong thing to do. This is made all the more convincing with Ben Foster completely encapsulating the role of Armstrong. His transformation, especially in the physical sense, is uncanny and further proves that Foster is a fine actor who can do great things when given something to sink his teeth into. Likewise Chris O’Dowd brings sympathy to the journalist who must deal with the backlash of being the only person to believe that Armstrong was cheating the sport he loved.
Admirable support is given by Guillame Canet and Lee Pace, but it is Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis who lends The Program the greatest support. One can empathise with Landis and how he found himself in a situation he couldn’t control and Plemons adds a great deal of strength to the role. Despite all this, The Program doesn’t quite balance out. At times it can feel like the Hollywood production that it is, while at others it feels like no more than a shiny TV documentary. What also grates is that some elements feel forced and a late Dustin Hoffman cameo merely feels like a grand gesture, even if he does out-act everyone in his very short amount of screen time.
The Program is an interesting and provocative look at the career of one of cycling’s greats, and at times it’s possible to even feel some sympathy for him. Yet for all its good work, The Program can’t quite raise itself to be a truly invigorating experience.
The first of three extras focuses on David Walsh and his persistence in proving Lance Armstrong had cheated cycling. It’s a short feature, but one that is worth your time in that it’s interesting hearing this very real story come from the man who started it all. In fact, one wonders if this would have worked better with interviews from the people involved edited into the film. Unfortunately the interview is only short and leaves you wanting more.
Becoming Lance Armstrong looks at how Ben Foster took on the role of Lance Armstrong and how he committed himself to the performance. Foster manages to bare an uncanny resemblance to Armstrong, but this is again far too short and doesn’t have the same level of interest as the previous feature.
The Program is an even shorter feature that looks at the making of the film and the history behind the main players. Regrettably at just over three minutes long, The Program barely registers and tells us little we didn’t already know.