The Program (2015)

The Program (2015)
  • Time: 104 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Sport
  • Director: Stephen Frears
  • Cast: Ben Foster, Dustin Hoffman, Chris O’Dowd, Lee Pace


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.


  • Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace has been fashioned as an emotionally hollow but narratively compelling combination of Frankenstein fable, the corruption of celebrity, and the dangers of self-mythology.

    Adapted by John Hodge from sports journalist David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the film picks up in 1993 as Armstrong (the always excellent Ben Foster) is about to embark on his first Tour de France. Interviewed by Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), the youngest rider in the race is friendly enough, but displays his competitive streak over a simple game of foosball with the writer. Walsh deems him a good rider, one built for a day race but not the type to endure the grueling three-week slog of the most difficult sporting event in the world. Fellow cyclist Johan Bruyneel (Denis Ménochet) says as much to him before a race in Belgium, and Armstrong himself seems to understand this as he convinces his teammates into buying EPO, a performance enhancing drug sold over the counter in Swiss pharmacies.

    Taking the drug results in his first win, but then he’s waylaid by advanced testicular cancer. Surgery followed by aggressive chemotherapy renders him barely able to move, but his determination not to quit keeps him going. Already resembling Frankenstein’s monster with his shaved and scarred head, he becomes even more superhuman as he seeks out Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) after his cancer goes into remission. Ferrari, an Italian sports doctor, hails EPO as a gift from the heavens. Sport, he believes, is a science and now he can alter physiology. Where man was limited to the earth, he now has the means of making them soar. Canet hams it up as Ferrari, practically licking his lips as he inducts Armstrong and, eventually, the rest of the team into his program of testosterone, EPO, growth hormones, cortisone, and other steroids.

    Armstrong’s first victory in the Tour de France lays the foundation for the myth embraced around the world as the media and the public herald the man who beat cancer to win his sport’s coveted yellow jersey. Yet Walsh notices something – how is it possible that Armstrong is using brakes to slow himself down going up a mountain? How is it possible that Armstrong is 28 minutes faster than another rider who shares the same height, weight, and build? Walsh’s dogged determination to uncover the truth marks him as enemy number one in Armstrong’s eyes.

    The Program gains traction as Armstrong’s celebrity reaches it peak, acting as a shield to rumours, allegations, and even outright accusations. He becomes literally too big to fail as he’s enabled by Bruyneel, now his team manager, agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace), and various cycling authorities, who want to maintain the profitability and visibility that Armstrong has brought to the sport of cycling. His teammates are repeatedly told their job is to protect Armstrong, not just from the other riders during the race but also from those wishing to take him down. No one wants to mar the myth, least of all Armstrong who is ruthless in preserving his golden boy image as the sport’s saviour. At a time when cycling was rocked with one doping scandal after another, Armstrong branded himself as a clean racer, wielding his charitable foundation and his proclamation that he “has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs” like unassailable badges of honour.

    Except Armstrong, like so many men elevated to hero status, was vulnerable and his own hubris ensured his downfall. This is a man who believed he was so untouchable, that he could quash all dissidents with his fame and celebrity, that only he had control of his narrative. Even when the evidence was too insurmountable to explain away, Armstrong refused to let anyone else dictate his redemption.

    This is dynamic stuff…when Hodge and director Stephen Frears ease up on their narrow-minded and one-dimensional view of Armstrong as a liar and a cheat. The film makes no bones about its matter-of-fact approach, duly but swiftly running down the events that led to his downfall. There is many an instance when the camera frames Foster in claustrophobic close-ups as if about to bore into his brain, but this is not a film that is genuinely interested in plumbing Armstrong’s psychological depths. To be fair, perhaps there are only shallow waters to explore in Armstrong who, in most post-scandal interviews, has yet to reveal any complexity in his decision to do what he did other than the desire to win at whatever cost.

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  • Quickie Review:

    Obsessed with winning the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) uses performance enhancing substances to gain the edge. Meanwhile, sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) convinced of the doping conspiracy starts to gather evidence to expose Armstrong. The Program, is an underwhelming retelling of the one of the biggest drug scandals in sports history. Admittedly the actor’s performances are good, and the movie overall is shot well. However, the script and the story telling are to the quality of what you might expect from an average TV documentary re-enactment.

    Full Review:

    Considering the high profile nature of the scandal, I was surprised that The Program wasn’t marketed more. I never saw the trailers in the cinemas and when I brought up that I was going to watch this movie in the weekend I was immediately asked by everyone “What’s that?” After watching the film it’s clear to me that even the studio lacked confidence in the final product.

    Few as they may be, there are certainly some redeeming things about The Program. The lead actor Ben Foster gave a solid performance, at a certain point I didn’t see him anymore and only saw Lance. Which probably is the biggest compliment I’ll give to this movie. I also enjoyed seeing the whole doping operation, it was meticulous and systematic. I really got the sense of the lengths that Lance and his team went to achieve their goals. Although it is definitely disgraceful, I must admit I was rather impressed by how for so long they got away with it all. So I commend the filmmakers for pulling off that aspect of the story. As for the rest of the story, there’s more to be desired.

    You couldn’t ask for better true story material for a sports drama. There was huge potential here, but all of it is lost because of the paint by the numbers approach to the film. Rather than concentrating on a singular character and see them transform over the course of the movie, The Program opts to also give significant spotlight to David Walsh and Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). This causes the movie to lose focus with each change. The structure of movie made it blatantly obvious that the director and the editor prioritised showing a checklist of major events in Lance’s life rather than telling a coherent story. An example of this false priorities was the introduction of Lance’s wife. The whole segment of them meeting lasts for about 45 seconds, we get a quick look at a wedding, and that’s it, we never see her again for the rest of the movie. That small segment was just there to show Lance got married at one point. It felt completely unnecessary, instead I would love to have seen how this whole operation affected his relationships and friendships.

    The Program, is a movie that no-one knows about and unfortunately will be a forgettable experience for the ones who do watch it. I think if I had caught this as a re-enacted documentary on TV, I’d be really impressed. However when it comes to biographically movies in cinemas it just doesn’t hold up to the standard set by recent movies such as The Social Network or Selma for example.

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