Movie Review: THE PROGRAM (UK/France 2015)

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the_programTHE PROGRAM (UK/France 2015)**
Directed by Stephen Frears

Starrting: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman

Review by Gilbert Seah

Lance Armstrong is infamous the world over. The recent documentary on his disgrace THE ARMSTRONG LIE had informed the world of his demise, and now the fictionalized version is ready to do more of the same. Lance Armstrong (played by Ben Foster) is an American cyclist who won the Tour De France 7 years running. He entertained controversy of his taking performance enhancing drugs (particularly EPO in short). He denied it totally and the world believed him. But after his comeback after a 4-year break, a fellow team member, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) confessed to his and Armstrong’s taking of EPO. The Tour De France stripped Armstrong of all 7 wins.

THE PROGRAM is understandably a French/British co-production as Armstrong obviously not only disgraced himself but the county he represented. THE ARMSTRONG LIE was made and shelved when the disgrace hit the news 3 years later, but released after Armstrong appeared on Oprah.

THE PROGRAM of the title refers to the drug program enforced by the French Doctor, Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), who was eventually banned from practice after word came out of his abuse. When Armstrong realized other cyclists may be using performance enhancing drugs, he begged the doctor to put him on the program at all costs.

It is surprising that Frears and the script by Jon Hodge sees so little time on the Irish reporter, David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who uncovered the truth of the story. The film based on Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins’ spends minimum time, showing the reporter’s work and quiet after Armstrong put him to shame. But when he was eventually proven correct, his triumph is just dismissed with the fact that the Sunday Times got their money they initially paid as damages to Armstrong back. Dustin Hoffman, credited in the film also has a one-line scene.

Armstrong is an extremely dislikable man. He shows no humility, is proud and obsessive and full of himself. A film that centres on a lead character with such a personality is obviously going to run into problems. Audiences disliking the lead will most likely dislike the film as a result. Director Frears who has in his carer made some excellent films (PHILOMENA, THE QUEEN) seems at a loss with the character of Armstrong. In his previous films that dealt with unsavoury characters like the pregnant teenage daughter in THE SNAPPER and homosexuality in MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, Frears used humour and satire to make his movie work. But in THE PROGRAM, Frears uses none of these tactics. He tells the story of the ARMSTRONG LIE in a straight forward story-telling convention. Using standard formulaic biopics story-telling, he charts the rise to fame, and slow downfall of the cyclist, highlighting his winning moments to lift the spirit of the story.

There is absolutely no need to watch another version of a disgraced human human being. Armstrong describes himself as a champion. But in reality he is one who has disgraced the sport and a spineless worm with no conscience. The documentary THE ARMSTRONG LIE has already told the same story and extremely well by Alex Gibney (ENRON, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE), with the real Armstrong as himself using actual footage of himself at the race without any re-enactments. At least Frears shows him, as the worst person that can be, still trying to convince the world of his ability.

The end credits predictably showing each of the featured characters in real life from Armstrong, to the doctor that enforced the drug program re-enforce the fact that Frears seem to be gnu through the motion with this one.

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