Festival Review: The Program (2015)

The Program

With an outstanding performance from Ben Foster, Stephen Frears’ The Program gets bogged down in intricately retelling the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong.

Bicycle Thief

by Mark Wilshin

The Program

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Based on the book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by Sunday Times reporter David Walsh, Stephen Frears’ The Program recounts the life and times of Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) from his first forays into professional racing to his doping confessions on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It’s similar in its chronology to Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, and the script – penned by Danny Boyle regular John Hodge – takes pains to reveal all the dynamics, turning points and races that unmaketh the man. From the controversy surrounding Italian trainer Dr Michele Ferrari to Armstrong’s confession to his doctor in the cancer ward in front of team-mate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy that he took performance-enhancing steroids or the physiotherapist who overheard his telephone conversation requesting a prescription be backdated after testing positive for cortisone, all of Armstrong’s witnesses are lined up and ready in waiting. But while Frears’ film deftly negotiates the ins and outs of Armstrong’s rise and fall, The Program only really works thanks to Ben Foster’s breathtaking performance, which humanises rather than demonises Armstrong – swinging mercurially between machismo, vulnerability and menacing authority as well as changing his body-shape completely. Where The Program loses traction is in its narrative gambit, unsure if it’s a film about journalistic determination, sport ethics or the abuse of power. A character study following in the tracks of Stephen Frears’ previous film The Queen, The Program is the consummate biopic – curious, even-handed and detailed. But in its portrait of an ambitious man desperate to win, The Program exposes all the whys, but forgets about the wherefores.

The Program is now showing at the London Film Festival

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