Movie Review: The Program lacks any and all forms of performance enhancing storytelling
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: John Hodge (screenplay), David Walsh (book)
Stars: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet
Synopsis: An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong’s performances during the Tour de France victories are fueled by banned substances. With this conviction, he starts hunting for evidence that will expose Armstrong.
It’s a shame that great biopics these days are a dime a dozen. It’s an even bigger shame when they are as bad as Stephen Frears’ The Program, an insulting demonstration on the doping scandal the plagued Lance Armstrong, his team, and his seven wins at the Tour de France. Based on the novel Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by reporter David Walsh, The Program chronicles the life of cyclist Lance Armstrong from 1993 until 2012. That right there should be your first concern, from 1993 until 2012. This already sounds like agenda driven drivel.
Ben Foster portrays Armstrong, and one can’t help but feel like this film was only made because Foster has an uncanny resemblance to Armstrong in this film; there are flashes of brilliance, but only just. As most are already familiar with, Armstrong was both an activist for surviving testicular cancer and a doping cheater, accused of using performance enhancing drugs while racking up his wins at the Tour de France. The Program doesn’t shy away from the fact that Armstrong was in fact a cheater, along with his doctor and teammates, in fact it fully embraces his unlikeability so superficially and insultingly, one can’t help but feel that the film ironically cheats in its storytelling. It is reporter David Walsh, portrayed by Chris O’Dowd, who suspects and accuses Armstrong of doping. O’Dowd actually gives a legitimately good performance here, and it’s the investigational aspect involving Walsh where The Program is at its most intense and relevant, which also leads to the film’s biggest problem.
With all biopics, one has to ask why this was a story worth telling, specifically as a dramatized film. With The Program, there are two moments that show us this. The first is David Walsh’s suspicion and eventual investigation of Lance Armstrong, as denoted above; in fact it’s easy to wonder why Walsh wasn’t the main character of this film. The second moment is the Livestrong Foundation, specifically a moment during one of Lance’s seminars where a woman approaches Lance and tells him he’s the reason she didn’t give up. Dissecting this scene a bit more, this is the moment where the film attempts to humanize Lance Armstrong by showing a moral dilemma, one not terribly different from David Walsh and his desires to report the story he feels is right. Unfortunately, this moment is nothing more than an eye-rollingly unearned moment, and it isn’t the only one of those.
Armstrong’s moral struggle for cheating and cancer activism is a fascinating idea, something that could’ve brought a surprising commonality between Armstrong and Walsh. Instead, The Program is not a movie, nor is it even properly titled. A better title for this film is “The Checklist”, as it is more concerned on telling the viewer absolutely everything that happened to Armstrong between 1993 and 2012, checking off every major event in Armstrong’s life rather than focus on an aspect of his life that helped define who the man was. There is no resonance, no arc, no drama, and worst of all, no point.
There are still good things in the film; the performances are strong (particularly Chris O’ Dowd and Jesse Plemons), and Frears’ direction is flashy and energetic, even though it feels like he’s trying to channel the aesthetics of Danny Boyle, which is ironic given the film’s script is by long-time Boyle collaborator John Hodge. It’s even worse that the script is the film’s biggest problem, when Hodge has proven himself as a more than capable writer. But when it comes to biopics, Hodge, Frears, and all the cast and crew fail at making the film any more relevant or unique than the existing documentary, The Armstrong Lie. Don’t let yourself get lied into this one, if you want to know this story, just watch the documentary.