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New Release Review - THE PROGRAM

Dramatisation of the rise and fall of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Jesse Plemons, Dustin Hoffman, Denis Menochet, Guillaume Canet




"Given how Frears' film is based on Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins, you might expect The Program to focus on Walsh's investigation, but O'Dowd's Walsh is barely present, as instead the movie focusses its gaze on Armstrong."





When we first meet cyclist Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) in director Stephen Frears' The Program he's a wide-eyed, yet to be corrupted 21-year-old, enjoying a game of fussball with Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd). He speaks with confidence and belief in his abilities, but when Walsh drops his guard, Armstrong takes advantage and wins the game - by cheating! Aha, we see what Frears and screenwriter John Hodge did there! This is but an early hint at the sledgehammer storytelling to come for the rest of this unfocused mess of a movie.
When Armstrong beats testicular cancer, he vows to ignore this disadvantage and win cycling's greatest event, the Tour de France. Of course, he knows this is physically impossible, especially when most of his rivals are drugged up to their eyeballs on a cocktail of testosterone and performance enhancing drugs. He enlists the aid of sports scientist Michele Ferrari, portrayed here as a Baron Frankenstein figure by Guillaume Canet, who has developed the titular program, believing the use of drugs is merely the next evolution of the sport. It's not long before Armstrong becomes the Baron's monster, winning a gobsmacking seven tours with ease. While the world celebrates an inspirational story of one man overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, Walsh is having none of it, and begins to follow up the niggling feeling that America's golden boy is making a mockery of the sport.
Given how Frears' film is based on Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins, you might expect The Program to focus on Walsh's investigation, but O'Dowd's Walsh is barely present, as instead the movie focusses its gaze on Armstrong. It can't seem to decide on a stance regarding the cyclist, torn between portraying him as both victim and perpetrator, but the longer the film runs, the more of a snarling over the top villain he becomes in his quest for domination, aided by a rogues gallery of yes men and hangers on. All we see of Armstrong is his time on the tour; despite his wife being introduced in a throwaway scene, we never see Armstrong's home life, the film steadfastly refusing to speculate on how the cyclist really felt about his methods. Forever in the company of the press and the representatives of world cycling, every word from Armstrong is carefully rehearsed, which makes Foster's performance seem unfairly mechanical.
There's an interesting debate to be had about whether the world is a better place for Armstrong's cheating. Had he not illegally won those seven titles, it's likely millions of dollars worth of cancer research would have gone without funding, and several people may have succumbed to the disease without his financial assistance. The question of whether or not this is a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of a sport is never addressed here, presumably because such a debate would add a layer of nuance that might detract from the sub-standard thriller Frears and Hodge have fashioned, one that ultimately fails because it can't decide who, between Armstrong and Walsh, is the film's hero.



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