THE PROGRAM || 2015, UK / France || Biopic || Directed by – Stephen Frears / Written by – John Hodge (based on the book Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh) / Produced by – Raphael Benoliel, Tim Bevan, Liza Chasin, Olivier Courson, Eric Fellner, Amelia Granger, Ron Halpern, Matthew Rubin, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon / Music by – Alex Heffes / Cinematography – Danny Cohen / Editing by – Valerio Bonelli / Production design – Alan MacDonald / Starring – Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Ménochet, Dustin Hoffman / Running time: 103 mins.
Those who are expecting the usual biopic, the kind that makes the Oscar rounds come award season, will most likely be disappointed by the frank nature of this exploration of a real life anti-hero. The Program by Stephen Frears has some real energy behind it, and the stylization of some of its sequences and music choice adds some true adrenaline to this unflinching portrait. But the blunt nature of this character driven examination has little time for the usual melodramatic cliches, and is more interested in a true chronicling of the rise and fall of the famous cyclist, choosing this aspect over a deep examination of his personal and family life, that mostly remain unexplored.
This is the story of Lance Armstrong (played by Ben Foster), a cancer survivor who became a record-breaking Tour de France winner thanks to a unique blend of charismatic determination and biochemical elements. A true driving point of the storyline of The Program is the antagonism and rivalry between Armstrong and Sunday Times reporter David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd), whose writings the script is based on, and whose exposè on the cyclist’s systematic doping provoked a particularly aggressive lawsuit.
The Program occasionally examines the politics of the sport, and its vulnerability in the eyes of arguably its biggest megastar ever. There is no doubt, however, about the fact that it is the representation of Armstrong himself that is the pivotal point of the film, and as such a lot of responsibility was given to Ben Foster in the leading role. He does an exceptional job, frighteningly scary in his interpretation of the sportsman’s obsession with victory at all costs, even by way of expoliting cancer awareness to strengthen his reputation in the eye of the public, which is possibly the most disturbing aspect of the film. His performance is also very physical, as shown not only in the training sequences, but also by the powerful facial expressions that coat even the most silent of sequences with great intensity.
The Program was made only a few years after Alex Gibney’s great documentary The Armstrong Lie. The power of said documentary, mixed with Gibney’s more personal involvement in the affair, lessens the impact of Frears’ film, that in comparison feels less powerful and immediate. It still remains an insightful look at one of the most controversial moments in modern sport history, that despite its aggressiveness retains a certain distance from its central character, allowing the viewer to make up their own minds on his polarizing nature. – 4/5