The Program Review: Like Lance Armstrong, It Really Lets You Down

Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India), March 11, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Program Review: Like Lance Armstrong, It Really Lets You Down


New Delhi, March 11 -- The Program

Director - Stephen Frears

Cast - Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman

Rating - 2.5/5

He was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness; he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case.

- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Robert Ford got too close. His perception, glazed with the greasy pulp of novels and theatre productions promised him a hero. What he saw before him, as he fired the gun that would make him famous, was a man. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is now regarded as an overlooked classic. The reason I invoke it so early in this review is because there is no other film as wise about the dangers of celebrity, and how, sometimes, it is best to observe our heroes from afar, than it.

Lance Armstrong's was a true toppling of a titan. Even as a casual observer, his fall from grace had an undeniable majesty to it. It was as if Moses' parting of the Red Sea was suddenly revealed to be an elaborate smoke and mirrors trick. I felt the true magnitude of this event years later, only a few days ago, when Maria Sharapova called that impromptu press conference.

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Stephen Frears' The Program, about the rise, and dope-induced fall of Lance Armstrong is a frustrating picture. When it succeeds, it glides like its protagonist (antagonist?) down an Alpine slope. But when it fails, it resembles a pile up 500 metres from the finish line. Frears sets it up, in true sports movie fashion, as a battle between David and Goliath. On one side there is a Nixonian Armstrong, portrayed here as a one-dimensional Bond villain, and on the other, is David Walsh, the Irish journalist whose Woodward and Bernstein-like resilience brought him down.

It's still early days when flashy titles introduce us to these two adversaries. From the very first time that Armstrong wins the Tour de France, flouting Walsh's expert predictions, the cat and mouse game is on. Armstrong's famously inspirational story of cancer survivor turned champ is retold, but with the luxury of hindsight. And that is partly where the movie goes off track. It seems as if Frears, the fantastic filmmaker behind The Queen and Philomena, is determined to show Armstrong as harshly as possible. Were it not for Ben Foster's commanding performance, there would have been no saving this film.

It could be argued that the film is told through the eyes of David Walsh (played with perhaps a little too much emphatic passion by Chris O'Dowd), in which case the moustache-twirling portrayal of Armstrong makes sense. To Walsh, every yellow jersey Armstrong won must've felt like a Donald Trump victory to a Hollywood liberal. …

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