Master deception, average execution – The Program review

Biopics seem to have this curse. It will either have a tremendous amount of impact and we’ll leave the cinema feeling dazed at the real life story we have saw brought to life once again. Or, some don’t have as much impact as intended, and although we can sense the efforts made to try and wow us, we leave the cinema feeling fairly unsatisfied. So where does The Program fit in?

The Program, directed by Oscar nominated Stephen Frears (known for both Philomena and The Queen – both exceptional) is a sport biopic film based around the story of Lance Armstrong. The film follows his rise to power, and eventual fall from grace.

As a trainee journalist, my interest in The Program was significantly high considering a main component of the film revolves around Irish journalist David Walsh’s efforts to show the world that Armstrong was in fact doping. For what really is a heroic story considering the amount of power Armstrong had, was it shown to us in all its dramatic glory? No, not particularly.

I went in expecting a gritty drama which yes, followed Lance’s career, but a lot about the efforts to bring him down. But instead it became a lot more about Lance and his team avoiding being caught, which while some could argue is just as effective, it’s not what I was hoping for.

The beginning of the end.

The film also lacked a certain class that if I’m honest, was almost absolutely essential for a story both of this magnitude and importance. It all felt a little cheap for me. There were some scenes, which I will get onto, which really shined, but others made it feel like a B-movie. I think we’d all agree that this kind of story needs a higher quality than that.

It’s not all doom and gloom – there were a few things I really did love about the film. First things first, there was a fluidity to the film. There wasn’t a single point where I felt like it wasn’t moving at a solid pace. Also, the film does have its story straight. It’s adapted from the book written by David Walsh himself regarding the Armstrong saga, therefore it doesn’t turn into a conventional underdog sports movie. We see Armstrong’s cancer early on in the running time, so then we can move on to what made him a fraud, and dissolve sympathy we may have had for him. Showing us events like the creation of Armstrong’s charity,The Livestrong Foundation, as well as the cancer, all adds together to make the story much more involving – despite the fact I expected a more focused angle.

The casting is easily the most fantastic thing about the film. I’ll start by pointing out Jesse Plemons’ performance as Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s teammate. Yes, it isn’t the biggest part, but it is crucial to the story, and Plemons handled it well.

Secondly, Chris O’Dowd’s performance as David Walsh. No you haven’t misread that – it is in fact Roy from The IT Crowd. This choice in casting in particular really piqued my curiosity about the film. As a massive fan of The IT Crowd, I was intrigued to see how O’Dowd would perform in a serious role. Thankfully, I am incredibly pleased to say he done a wonderful job. There is a couple of moments where his humour shines through, but other than that he really does capture how David Walsh must have felt during this strange time. Some of the finest points in the film are when the focus is turned to the investigative journalism involved, so it really is a shame that this was pretty much brushed to the side. I would of loved to see O’Dowd have more time to really shine.

He knows…

Last but not least, Ben Foster in his performance as Lance Armstrong. Not only does he have a haunting similarity to Armstrong looks wise in The Program, but his performance really is a knock out. Foster’s performances over the years have gotten better and better, so it is good to see him take the lead and not drop the ball – or fall off the bike. His performance hits major highs at moments where his frustration is showcased, and ultimately his villainy. The fact Foster took performance enhancing drugs (under medical supervision) to increase his authenticity in the role really does show his commitment, which pays off.

Mouth shut for years.

Frears’ depiction of the Armstrong saga is entertaining certainly, but does it live up to its promise? No. Yes, the casting was excellent and sequences involving the actual doping are thrilling – albeit they lose their impact. However the circling round of parts of story and lack of focus really hurt The Program. For a film based on what really is one of the greatest deceptions of our time, it lacked a lot of punch.

Rating: No Bad

Check out the trailer below:

What do you think? Will you be seeing The Program? Or are you giving this one a miss? Let me know in the comments below, or send a tweet using the widgets to @frew_cameron.

Published by

Cameron Frew

Freelance film writer. Words on Flickering Myth, Bloody Disgusting, Movie Corner UK and Jumpcut Online. My five favourite films are: 1. The Goonies 2. Forrest Gump 3. The Shawshank Redemption 4. Warrior 5. Whiplash

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