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The Program - DVD Review

The Program

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

THE rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is a truly extraordinary story and one that demands an intelligent movie. But while Stephen Frears’ The Program offers a fascinating insight into the facts as they emerged, it struggles to really get behind the enigma that is Armstrong.

Adapted by John Hodge from the book by Sunday Times investigative reporter David Walsh (played in the film by Chris O’Dowd), the film doesn’t offer up much in the way of new insight, especially if you’ve already seen Alex Gibney’s riveting documentary, The Armstrong Lie.

But it remains an enthralling watch thanks in no small part to the lead performance by Ben Foster, who works hard to create the enigma that is Armstrong. It’s a fierce performance that taps into the confident determination of a man who strove to be the best, no matter what it took. It’s also packed full of the arrogance that subsequently accompanied it.

And when moments allow, it also hints at the self-doubt that maybe, just maybe, accompanied Armstrong’s rise – as in a scene where the cyclist visits cancer-stricken children in hospital and opts to spend some time with one particularly sick boy. It’s an affecting scene and, arguably, one of the most effective scenes in the film.

For those that don’t know, Armstrong was a dedicated cyclist who beat cancer to become a record-breaking multiple Tour de France. But behind-the-scenes, he sought help to win by subjecting himself to bio-chemical enhancement, effectively cheating his way to success.

But as his celebrity grew, so too did the security surrounding his lie. Those that dared threaten to expose him were bullied and discredited themselves. And while Armstrong’s success aroused the suspicion of Times journalist Walsh from the start, few of his colleagues dared to believe it could be true – the miraculous nature of his cancer survival serving as something of a smoke-screen, or safety net, to the truth.

Frears’ film examines the key moments in Armstrong’s journey and juxtaposes that with Walsh’s own passage to the truth. But there are times when it feels overly episodic, sacrificing the chance to really get underneath the skin of its central protagonist to cram all the facts as we already know them in.

As a result, questions remain which only Armstrong himself can only answer. But the film seldom exercises the option to speculate.

If that blunts its power, then it doesn’t necessarily diminish its impact or ability to keep viewers absorbed, for thanks to Foster (in particular) and O’Dowd, The Program still emerges as compelling, albeit flawed, viewing.