The Program

Director: Stephen Frears

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Dustin Hoffman, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemont, Lee Pace, Bryan Greenberg

Written by: John Hodge and (based on the book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”) David Walsh

Running Time: 103 mins

Cert: 15

Release date: 16th October 2015

He was the man who defeated an illness then rose to fame as a champion cyclist and charity campaigner, only to have everything crush around him because he was a liar and a cheat. Yet the story of Lance Armstrong is a fascinating one and a perfect tale for a dramatisation. However, his story is so well documented and having only recently had the excellent documentary, The Armstrong Lie, which tells the whole story from those involved, means that this well made film seems slightly redundant.

Lance Armstrong always wanted to be a winner. A road cyclist, he was shunned away by Doctor Michele Ferrari as being the wrong shape to be a champion. Then he was struck down by cancer, leaving him close to death. Yet his steely determination meant he wasn’t going to lose this battle and so recovered with an even greater hunger to win. Entering the Tour De France and being taken on by the same doctor who once wanted nothing to do with him, Armstrong soon became seven times winner but at a huge cost and one Irish reporter, Davis Walsh, was the only man to see through the deceit.

Stephen Frears is one of this country’s finest and most accomplished directors, having a string of films from My Beautiful Laundrette to the excellent Philomena to his credit. This story is a typical Frears subject, ripped directly from the pages of the press. He handles it with his usual style and grace and has given us a polished piece of cinema, which merges actual race footage with events almost seamlessly.

Yet the problem with the film is over familiarity. Like Robert Zemeckis’s recent The Walk, having a well-known documentary like Man On Wire, we already knew about Philippe Petit and his escapades so there was very little tension until Zemeckis showed us the actual wire walk, something that was only depicted in pictures. There is so much footage of Armstrong and his tale that Frears has nothing to build the suspense. Because events were played out in public, from the denials to the eventual confession, famously on Oprah Winfred’s show, we can only admire the film and the performances but little else.

It is true to say that, with most of Frears’s films, the performances are impeccable. Once again turning to the world of comedy as he did with Steve Coogan in Philomena, Chris O’Dowd, he of The I.T. Crowd and others, is excellent as David Walsh, the journalist for the Sunday Times who stood alone as the only one who could see that Armstrong was not Superman and that performance enhancing drugs must be involved.

As Armstrong, Ben Foster is convincingly creepy as a man driven by ambition and a longing to win, at any cost, leading to an almost egomaniac manner. Foster is one of the screen’s most gifted yet often ignored actors and so convincing is he in the lead that you cannot tell when it is the real Armstrong on the screen and when Foster is. It’s a compelling and stunning piece of work.

If we haven’t had all the reports and even the previous documentary, The Program would have been high on the awards list and regarded as a strong piece of cinema. As it is, there’s plenty to admire, it’s just a shame we know the story so well.

3/5

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