A dizzying spin of great performance, cinematography, and drama, let down by a span of years not done enough justice by the final edit.
Stephen Frears’ true-life sports drama recounts the legend of Tour De France cyclist Lance Armstrong, following his career from his early attempts, his fight with cancer, and his subsequent seven year-long winning streak in the most gruelling event in cycling, if not in the sports world altogether. That streak was one accomplished by the most comprehensive drug program ever in athletics. Watching this from beginning to end is sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), certain from the moment Armstrong returns from his victory against cancer that something’s up. Over the course of more than 15 years, Walsh hunts for evidence that will prove Armstrong is cheating.
More than once in The Program, Ben Foster becomes indistinguishable from the real Lance Armstrong apart. The makeup it took to achieve this is totally imperceptible and brilliant, and Foster’s performance matches its transformative quality step for step in his own way. Dominating nearly every space he’s in with ease, whether he’s making a speech, threatening someone calmly, or shouting his head off, he captures what makes Armstrong such a fascinating character. Someone who was so inspiring, so charming, and equally so intimidating and powerful, that he had everyone fooled or covering the truth. For his performance alone, this is a good film.
Luckily everyone’s performances are up to task, especially O’Dowd. He brings his loveable charm to a role with a distinct moral compass, and convictions that make him just as watchable in his quest to bring down the magnetic Armstrong.
It’s a gorgeous film, with one of the coolest opening shots of the year, as Armstrong races up a mountain on his bike, cinematographer Danny Cohen using the low angles to great effect. There is equal dedication to showing the speed and the slowness of the bike at suitable moments, but the reliance on stock footage can grate. Whereas Rush was able to make Formula One completely exciting through its invasive and stylish camerawork, Cohen has as much shooting of offices to do. Possibly due to budget restrictions, the grainy stock recordings are director Frears’ fall-back.
Hodge’s screenplay has some great (if small) moments of wit, as well as giving Armstrong the necessary depth, so that it never feels he’s being lionised for his illicit victories. However over the 15-year span of the film, good portions of it jump around – some moments feel perfunctory and unnecessary, despite being arguably essential elements to Armstrong’s story. By far the strongest part of the film is the long middle, spanning the largest amount of years and the intensification of Walsh’s case. It’s when the film becomes a great drama – everything it says may not be entirely clear, but it is the sort of moral that it’s good to hear. With both O’Dowd and Foster’s great work, the film really clicks into gear.
The Program (2015), directed by Stephen Frears, is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal. Certificate 15.