Stephen Frears directs THE PROGRAM, a biographical drama about infamous pro cyclist Lance Armstrong
Two years after MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST FIGHT (2013), director Stephen Frears returns to the world of sport with his latest film, THE PROGRAM, a biographical drama about infamous pro cyclist Lance Armstrong who came back from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times before finally confessing to using performance-enhancing drugs.
The film kicks off in early 1990s with young cyclist Armstrong (Ben Foster) being interviewed by sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) on his first Tour de France. Wide eyed and confident, Armstrong shows ego and ambition but in reality is struggling to keep up with the native racers. Enter Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), an Italian sports doctor with an expertise in blood transfusions and other illicit doping methods, who becomes an instrumental part in Armstrong’s deception.
Fast-paced, complex and fascinating, Frears delivers a captivating character study with THE PROGRAM. The Lance Armstrong story is certainly not new, inspiring several books and two cinema documentaries (THE ARMSTRONG LIE and STOP AT NOTHING: THE LANCE ARMSTRONG STORY) but what makes Frears’ film different is that it chooses to concentrate on the deception and crime itself. Unlike Alex Gibney’s THE ARMSTRONG LIE in which the Armstrong attempts to ingratiate himself to the camera, THE PROGRAM makes no attempt to endear us to the protagonist. Foster’s Armstrong comes across almost sociopathic as he repeats “I have never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs” in front of a mirror, wiping any trace of humanity from the character.
THE PROGRAM’s real strength and power lies in Ben Foster’s memorising performance as the disgraced cyclist. Foster, who bears an unnerving physical resemblance to Armstrong, plays the character with zealot-like intensity, nailing his power, charisma and psychological failings and elevating the film to a new level.
The thorn in Armstrong’s side is Irish Sunday Times sports journalist David Walsh played by Chris O’Dowd. O’Dowd perfectly captures the conflict of a man who risked his own career to prove Armstrong’s performances were fueled by banned substances, making a mockery of the sport and his character provides both moral compass and comic relief to an otherwise complex and intense script.
Jesse Plemons also shines as deeply conflicted fellow cyclist Floyd Landis, as does Guillaume Canet as villainous Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari.
Where THE PROGRAM falls down is that it tries to cram in too many perspectives. Alongside Armstrong, we also follow Irish journalist David Walsh on his quest to bring Armstrong down, as well as fellow US Postal teammate Floyd Landis, who is dealing with his own internal conflicts. The film could have been told from any one of these perspectives but instead, it crams them all in and is less impactful because of it.
Further narrative strands are also thrown in for good measure but offer very little in terms of story or character development. One example of this is the fleeting scene in which Armstrong meets his wife, which lasts all of 30 seconds and is never mentioned again. It is here that THE PROGRAM may have benefitted from a more intimate angle. Even Dustin Hoffman makes an 11th hour cameo appearance as insurance man Bob Hamman.
While Stephen Frears’ THE PROGRAM may not add anything to the Armstrong story that you haven’t already read, seen or heard before, it is well worth watching if just for Ben Foster’s performance alone.
All in all, THE PROGRAM is a solid biopic about one man’s ego and the lengths he went to in order to achieve success.
THE PROGRAM screens at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival on 10 October and is released in UK on 14 October.
This review was originally written for ScreenRelish