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29th October 2015

Review: The Program

Ben Foster’s strong portrayal of Lance Armstrong makes The Program watchable

Possibly one of the greatest and most inspirational cyclists of all time, Lance Armstrong was a symbol of hope and endurance to millions of cancer patients and athletes around the world. That was until 2012, when he was accused, and later charged with doping. The shame that the discovery brought to cycling as a sport and Armstrong himself was unprecedented—and its implications can still be felt to this very day. Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh—a hugely influential book, is more than substantial to fill a weekend’s afternoon slot at your local cinema—but it doesn’t stand out in what could be found to be a particularly busy period for film.

Swooping and sweeping through the French Alps with the famous yellow jersey upon his torso, we find Armstrong (Ben Foster) at the peak of his career. He oozes confidence—and rightly so, being arguably one of the most profitable athletes of his time. Foster plays him straight down the line, with the 34-year-old capturing what journalists and other riders explained as sinister arrogance. A shocking likeness has been created from the makeup department to capture the boniness of Armstrong’s face in Foster’s complexion—kudos. The actor even tested the same drugs as the rider in order to understand the physical implications of doping, to its harmful effects, too.

Frears, in his 2013 hit Philomena, casted the comically adored Steve Coogan in a dramatic role, which worked to great lengths. A similar take has been implemented in Chris O’Dowd’s casting as the writer famed for hunting down the American cyclists and writer of the source material, David Walsh. Grizzled and bearded, O’Dowd portrays the probing journalist as if he was a dramatist. However, he is given a few lines of dialogue to which he is naturally suited—thankfully. His narrative is clearly interwoven with Armstrong’s, but their two perspectives of life differ—one full of fame, and the other—a normal life.

Working its way upwards from 1992 and to the height of Armstrong’s career, a deep understanding is established as a primary basis of the American’s desire to become the best in his field. A constant development and insight into his psyche mutates from year to year—what would surely leave Freud overjoyed. Great parallels between this and canon literary works like Doctor Faustus and Dorian Grey reflect upon the rider. A need to feel a part of the world of cycling as like he truly belongs leads him down a road of perilous consequences in his long term future—as widely documented. As with these types of inquisitive filmmaking comes name cards, title sequences and an uplifting coda.

Although Frears clearly wants to deliver an emotionally uplifting tone through this medium, one cannot help but think that a lack of this editing l feel would have benefitted his work—see David Fincher’s The Social Networking for a rejection of this mode. Constantly spoon-feeding the viewer with names of characters leaves them in a stage of infancy—to truly shine and stand out cinematically, the director should have let his audience roam free in the film—not subjugate them to undermining codes and conventions.

To millions of people around the world, Armstrong was a god among men. He represented that the impossible meant nothing in the face of adversity. Although The Program does outline his feats, it also shows the darker side to his character, obviously. Foster gives a performance in which any actor would be proud of, and his dedication to the role is there for all to bare witness too. Alongside him is O’Dowd, who, too fits into a dramatic role like a fish to water. Problems arise when all the threads of Armstrong’s case are slowly being pulled together. Dustin Hoffman’s role is merely for attraction and is muddled in amongst the drug scandal case. The events in which unfold still linger gloomingly over the sport of cycling and sends it back into the dark ages in marketing attraction. If an avid cycling fan or anyone who is intrigued by the events surrounding the cyclist himself, then The Program is more than enjoyable. But if not, then another film maybe preferable to whisk away a few hours.


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