THE PROGRAM (UK | France/15A/103mins)
Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Pace, Elaine Cassidy, Laura Donnelly
THE PLOT: Lance Armstrong was once one of the most famous and decorated athletes in the world, with seven Tour De France victories under his belt. All of this came crashing down in 2013, when he finally admitted to the doping allegations that had plagued him for years. Director Stephen Frears takes us behind the scenes of the man, the myth and the cheat.
THE VERDICT: Just over 18 months have passed since Alex Gibney’s documentary about the incredible life and lies of Lance Armstrong – ‘The Armstrong Lie’ – was released, and although he seems to be well able to laugh at himself – he tweeted an image of the Cards Against Humanity ‘Lance Armstrong’s Missing Testicle’ card in 2014 – he has largely faded form public consciousness. We have moved on to the next big thing. Kim Kardashian is pregnant again, donchano!? Why Stephen Frears’ film is necessary is unclear, but it is a clever and well-constructed piece of cinema nonetheless.
Ben Foster does a remarkable job as the manipulative, ambitious and ultimately dangerous Lance Armstrong. Not only does he look remarkably like the real man, he has got his mannerisms down pat, and makes Armstrong charming, with a layer of danger underneath the surface. Chris O’Dowd obviously has fun playing the tenacious and suspicious David Walsh and Jesse Plemons brings some sympathy to the film as Floyd Landis, a cyclist who was swept up in Armstrong’s wake. The rest of the cast includes Lee Pace, Elaine Cassidy, Laura Donnelly and Dustin Hoffman in a small role.
John Hodge’s screenplay is based on David Walsh’s book ‘The Race to Truth: Blowing the whistle on Lance Armstrong and cycling’s doping culture’, but although there is more focus given to Walsh’s investigation of Armstrong than there has perhaps been in other films, there is really nothing in The Program that we didn’t already know. The science is made accessible and Armstrong is shown to be as menacing as he was rumoured to be but those who have followed Armstrong’s case will not learn any new information.
As director, Stephen Frears has created an intriguing film with a rock and roll soundtrack, underlining Armstrong’s image as a rock and roll cyclist at the height of his fame. However, songs such as ‘Everybody Knows’ by Leonard Cohen, and Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ sum up the central problem with the film; it is well acted, well put together and cleverly uses archive footage of Armstrong himself, but we already know this story.
In all, ‘The Program’ is really nothing new. It is well acted – Foster in particular is excellent – well put together and an almost terrifying example of how a manipulative and ambitious man can make it to the top, but with the Oprah interview only three years ago, and The Armstrong Lie barely in our rearview mirror, it could be said that perhaps Frears should have allowed some time to lapse, so audiences don’t suffer Armstrong fatigue… The way we did with the constant back and forth of allegations and denials.
RATING: 3.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

The Program
Review by Brogen Hayes
3.5Nothing new
  • filmbuff2011

    What more can be said about ace cyclist turned cheat Lance Armstrong? We already had a probing documentary from Alex Gibney, The Armstrong Lie, early last year. With The Program, Stephen Frears sets out to dramatise the dramatic events that unfolded. Starting in the early 1990s, we meet young hopeful Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) as he talks to Irish journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) about his passion for competitive cycling. Over the course of the next few years, their paths will cross many times. Lance is diagnosed with cancer, but overcomes it and becomes a hero as he then blazes his way to glory at the Tour De France. Something is up though – Lance and his team have fallen under the influence of Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), a doctor who subjects them to a program of performance-enhancing drugs. This is kept within the team, who are there to protect their star cyclist, Lance. Rigorous drug-testing is part of the sport, but Ferrari finds a way to make sure that the results come back negative. As Lance goes on to keep winning the Tour De France some 7 times, Walsh becomes increasingly suspicious. Something is not right here and Walsh risks isolation from his paper, the Sunday Times, as well as other journalists. The inspirational Lance Armstrong can’t possibly be a cheat. Can he? The Program feels like it’s come late to the Armstrong Party. It’s helpful to have a dramatisation of the whole shocking story, just to set the record straight and have something to refer to for posterity. But it also doesn’t add anything to the story or give us any new perspectives on Armstrong and why he did what he did. Behind his winning smile, Armstrong is a difficult personality and a compulsive liar who gave as good as he got when it came to doping allegations. He repeatedly denied that he took performance-enhancing drugs, despite testimony from other cyclists that saw him admitting to a doctor that he took a whole range of them. Foster is the real reason to watch this film though. Well-known for being a Method actor, he fully immerses himself into the role to the point where the acting disappears and he simply is Lance Armstrong. It’s a driven, committed performance that keeps your eyes glued to the screen during the familiar parts. Known more as a funnyman, O’Dowd makes a good case for being regarded as a serious actor. Less successful is Canet’s dodgy Italian doctor – the less said about him, the better. The Program is worth seeing if you’re curious about the whole Lance Armstrong story and Frears does a good job at keeping the story moving, but it’s hardly essential viewing. ***