Film Review – The Program (2015)

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Stephen Frears is one of the key British filmmakers of the late 45 years due to his hugely varied body of work. His many films include crime dramas like The Hit and The Grifters to High Fidelity to his trilogy on Tony Blair. His latest is him back on very familiar ground it’s a biopic of Lance Armstrong and like much of his work at times has a televisual quality which down to his work in television throughout the years.

Ben Foster who is a chameleon of an actor stars as Lance Armstrong. This is an actor in the space of two years has played both the writer William S. Burroughs and now Lance Armstrong which are such polar opposites in every possible way. He completely nails down the mannerisms of both of these people and in The Program he captures how Armstrong was lying through his teeth in press conferences and how he almost convinced himself “he never used performance enhancing drugs”. Foster went to lengths most actors wouldn’t dare to in his preparation for the role, he actually took performance enhancing drugs to better understand Armstrong. The physical resemblance also has an uncanny quality.

The main narrative through line comes in the guise of David Walsh whose book the film is based upon. Walsh is depicted by Irish actor Chris O’Dowd who is slowly moving into more dramatic roles after his big success in comedy work. Walsh like Armstrong has a determination but in his case it’s too bring down Armstrong as the doping cheat which he turned out to be. In reality O’Dowd is a far too young to play Walsh but gives a fine performance. Dustin Hoffman shows up in a gloried cameo as the famous bridge player Bob Hamman who had some dealings with Armstrong.

The film’s two biggest problems come out in two factors. The first factor is it plays like a solid HBO TV film which isn’t surprisingly given that Frears did Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight for HBO two years ago and worked in British TV throughout the ’70s and ’80s. The second is that when a true life story has already had a brilliantly done documentary about the subject like in this case The Armstrong Lie it’s really hard to dramatise it so amazingly it can transcend being a dramatisation. It pretty much goes through like the documentary and other documentaries telling his career success and then the cancer and his comeback, his retirement and his dumb decision to try to win the Tour De France yet again which was the start of his undoing.

It’s a fascinating story that is told well here but lacks the punch it really needs to become a classic and despite a phenomenal lead from Foster but it will hardly become a serious awards contender. Frears always brings an air class to the proceedings but at times it’s like watching reconstructions of famous events which it is. The film also boosts a bizarre soundtrack including a hilarious use of the cover of Mr. Pharmacist by The Fall. It’s worth seeing but I’m sure it will become a stable of Film4 programming in years to come which is probably where it belonged in the first place.

Ian Schultz

Biography, Drama, Sports | UK, 2015 | 15 | London Film Festival | Studiocanal | 16th October 2015 (UK) | Dir.Stephen Frears | Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Denis Ménochet, Dustin Hoffman