Film: “The Program”; Director: Stephen Frears; Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons, Guillaume Canet, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman, Elaine Cassidy, Laura Donnelly, Edward Hogg, Sam Hoare and Peter Wight; Rating: **1/2
“The Program” is a portrait of a cheat. Based on the book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong” by Irish sports journalist David Walsh, it is a biographical drama, which retells the rise and fall of the ace American cyclist Lance Armstrong of the US Postal Service team, a seven-time consecutive winner of the Tour de France.
Director Stephen Frears begins on an immersive note with the cyclist training on a cross-country track, displaying the intensity of the efforts necessary to compete in such a sport. What follows is a documentary-styled montage that includes Armstrong’s stunning victories, crushing illness, inspiring comeback and eventual fall from grace.
Why the film fails to touch an emotional chord with the audience is because the tale is predictable and the narrative straightforward from a third person’s point of view.
Other than giving us access to the behind-the-scenes scenario of the cyclist’s intricate program that puts his team and himself ahead of everyone else, the film does not offer anything that is unfamiliar. The script does not delve into the degree of psychological strain or moral conflict the champion felt over his infamously concealed doping habit.
It also tactfully veers away from his personal life and relationships. Apart from his marriage to Kristin Richard, which is established early in the film, there is no mention of his family life.
The plot graph lacks twists, turns and surprise dramatic overtures, especially during the criminal chase by Walsh. The narrative does not delve into Armstrong’s perspective. Also, the conclusion is a disappointingly rushed job. It perfunctorily checks off the headline-making stages of Armstrong’s life, especially his confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Also the script avoids speculative drama, veering tactfully away from its subject’s personal and domestic lives. Armstrong’s former wife first appears in a snappy meeting and they’re married in the next scene, whereupon she exits the film entirely.
With the physicality that resembles Armstrong, Ben Foster smugly slips into his character of the deceitful, cocksure glib-talker and cancer survivor. He emotes with his eyes and delivers a perfect performance as the chillingly psychotic go-getter.
Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis’ transition from a gullible greenhorn to a whistleblowing martyr is the most emotionally loaded arc of this otherwise cool-headed affair. He delivers an expressive performance, which simply creases out the complexities tracing Armstrong’s slippery downward spiral with ease.
Chris O’Dowd is oddly cast as the determined investigator David Walsh, who is sceptical about Armstrong’s winning prowess. Nevertheless, he shines in the unwritten character.
Dustin Hoffman in a brief crumpled appearance as an aggrieved promoting company’s chief, Bob Hamman, and Guillaume Canet as the slithery Italian physician Michele Ferrari, who designed the doping program undertaken by Lance and his team, are wasted.
They are aptly supported by Lee Pace as Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s lawyer and publicist, and Denis Menochet as the team’s new coach.
Danny Cohen’s camera work is indulgent for a sports film. His camera movements and angles are attractive and enticing. Valerio Bonelli’s editing is crisp. He blends the soundtracks and visuals with fitting attention. And the song, “Everybody knows” played during the closing credits fits the bill.
Overall, this film is just another fact based drama.