The Program – Review

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Lance Armstrong is an impenetrable man. Anybody who has seen Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary The Armstrong Lie can attest to such a sentiment, as the shamed cyclist bore so many secrets, and yet maintained a facade that refused to let anybody in. Even Oprah struggled to release any sense of emotion out of him. Oprah. The problem is, it’s a problem that exists in Stephen Frears’ The Program, as we struggle to discover the real man, feeling very much like we’re peering in from the outside, making for a distinctly distant and emotionally disengaging pice of cinema.

Irish journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) first met Armstrong (Ben Foster) as a wily, ambitious cyclist, who wanted to get to the top – no matter what it takes. Struggling to keep up with his contemporaries at first, and determined to win the prestigious Tour de France, he convenes with sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), requesting to take banned substances which will enhance his performance. Beginning a secretive, lonesome endeavour, soon Armstrong has a team full of fellow riders all taking part in his ‘program’ – as he strives, fervently, to achieve glory. During which time he overcame cancer, stealing the hearts of his nation, and the world of cycling – managing to convince pretty much everybody that he was clean – bar Walsh, who was determined not to give up in his investigation into a prevalent issue that was destroying his beloved sport from the inside. For Armstrong, however, the accolades were continuing to pour in, winning a record-breaking seven titles.

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Given we struggle to humanise Armstrong in this piece and embody the role in an efficient manner, that could be excused altogether had we maintained the perspective of Walsh. Though when this begins it does appear that we’re witnessing these events through his cynical eyes, much like we did with Frears’ preceding endeavour Philomena, or Anton Corbijn’s Life – but instead we disregard that approach altogether and the journalist becomes a mere supporting role, in a similar vein to the recent Kray twins biopic, Legend, where it appeared to be a tale told from Emily Browning’s Frances Shea.

Frears must be commended for making the race sequences absorbing, while the picturesque backdrop illuminates the screen – but do we learn anything new in this title? It may be worth just watching The Armstrong Lie instead – and if you’ve already seen that, then perhaps don’t bother with this picture at all. At least Foster is terrific in the leading role. You could even go as far as calling it a ‘tour de force’ for the actor. Sorry.

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