Drugs are bad, mmmkaay?
Sporting biopics are usually inspirational and uplifting accounts of an athlete’s struggle to make it to the top. The Program is a different breed as it tells the story of arguably the sporting world’s biggest ever scandal – how American cycling icon Lance Armstrong cheated his way to become the most successful man in the sport. Director Stephen Frears details how Armstrong overcame cancer to win cycling’s most prestigious race, the Tour De France, 7 times by way of using performance enhancing drugs.
When we first meet Armstrong (Ben Foster) he’s an up-and-coming hungry young cyclist who has some potential but not enough to really be considered as one of the best. In an effort to move up in the cycling world, he seeks out Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) who developed a medical ‘program’ designed to improve athletic endurance – which in a fun little montage he explains like a mad scientist.
Soon after, Armstrong’s diagnosed with testicular cancer and the disease puts him on the verge of death. After surviving his bout with cancer, he returns to racing with his already huge desire for winning increased and a sleeker body thanks to the excruciating chemotherapy.
Along with the help from his team (and from performing enhancing drugs of course) Armstrong wins an unprecedented number of Tour De Frances in a row and uses his worldwide fame to become a beacon of hope for cancer survivors.
Meanwhile, Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who’s been following Armstrong’s career from early on, notices how he “recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman” and speculates the use of drugs. Walsh’s suspicions are dismissed by his paper, the world and Armstrong himself as the cyclist creates an untouchable barrier around him.
There’s a cop/criminal vibe between Walsh and Armstrong somewhat similar to Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s dynamic in Heat as the journalist is determined to expose the cycling cheat. Both Foster and O’Dowd deliver fantastic performances which make for gripping viewing.
Foster, one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors at the moment, plays Armstrong with bravado, ruthlessness, rage and an unwavering of self-belief which makes him magnetic onscreen. You get a strong sense from Foster’s portrayal of Armstrong’s burning desire to win at all costs – whether it’s against cancer, a cycling race or casual games of table football and mini-golf. His white-hot will to win and not get caught makes him a nasty piece of work who you’ll dislike but simply can’t take your eyes off. Armstrong’s not a complete villain though as he shows subtle signs of doubt in his own lies along with some genuine compassion in a touching scene in a children’s cancer ward.
The usually comedic O’Dowd is brilliant too in a more serious role as he convincingly plays Walsh as a man who simply wants to see the sport he loves free from dishonesty. Just as Armstrong is driven to be the best, Walsh is driven to reveal the truth.
The Program benefits from a range of supporting performances especially from Jesse Plemons (Todd from Breaking Bad) who plays Floyd Landis, a member of Armstrong whose conscience forces him to question the lengths taken to win.
Stephen Frears directed his actors fantastically and his handling on the material is generally excellent. If you’ve ever seen cycling on television, you’ll know it’s quite boring to watch but Frears ensures the cycling scenes have a sense of excitement and high-stakes. He injects a quick tempo into The Program as its fast pacing covers the two-decade time period very well. Frears wastes no time with unnecessary scenes which makes the film feel streamlined and its the speedy pace reflects the frantic rush of a race.
The one major instance where Frears could have slowed things down is the unravelling of Armstrong’s web of lies. When the world finally learns the truth, the impact is somewhat lost due to its rushed feel.
The highly recommendable 2013 documentary, The Armstrong Lie, detailed how Lance’s efforts to shush anybody trying to expose him had a disastrous effect on their lives. The film maybe should have explored this a little bit more to give Armstrong’s deceit a little more context.
Overall, despite some niggling flaws, The Program is an intense and intriguing film which deserves to be seen. Just as you didn’t need to be a Formula 1 fan to enjoy 2013’s Rush, you don’t need to like cycling to enjoy The Program. With a mesmerising leading man Foster, who looks uncannily like Armstrong, along with an on form cast and some great directing, the film is a totally compelling sporting biopic. The Program scores a:
1ish – 2ish Stay away at ALL costs!!!
3ish – 4ish A bad film, not Michael Jackson Bad, but just straight up bad
5ish – 6ish Probably worth seeing at some point
7ish – 8ish A fantastic film definitely worth watching whenever you can
9ish -10 Unmissable – go watch it now!!!
Check out the trailer here: