The Lance Armstrong story is one that is best described by Armstrong himself, in his confessional interview with Oprah from January 2013. He describes it as a a mythic and perfect story that wasn’t true, so it’s easy to see why it’s being told on the big screen; something that is cheekily referenced a number of times in a few fun, fourth-wall breaking moments during The Program.
Depicting the true story of Lance Armstrong, who won a record number of Tour De France’s only to have them taken away from him after confessing to doping the entire time, it’s told in the more than capable hands of Stephen Frears.
Having directed Philomena, The Queen and my personal favourite, High Fidelity; The Program has more in common tonally with the latter and feels like Frears having fun. It has a visual edge that’s been missing from his most recent movies, and an energy that any Tour De France cyclist would give anything to have. It’s just a shame that, at times, the story itself feels too big for the film.
With so many people involved in the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, The Program has problems in juggling all the various parts of the picture. The film begins with the tantalising relationship between Armstrong and The Sunday Times journalist, David Walsh.
As the pair play table football against each other, their dynamic is cleverly set up, albeit subtly. You get the sense of each character instantly, and the promise of seeing their relationship unfold is exciting.
However, it doesn’t take long for that particular aspect to fall by the wayside, disappointingly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there throughout but only in small doses and not to the extent that I would have liked. What could have been a story about a journalist and his subject, much like Frost/Nixon, is instead one about, first and foremost, Lance Armstromg – and perhaps that’s the way it should be.
In the telling of Armstrong’s epic story, The Program loses out to Alex Gibney’s 2013 documentary, The Armstrong Lie. Gibney’s film is fascinating not only because he filmed it over the course of Armstrong’s fall from grace, but because it offers pinpoint detail into the various aspects of the cyclist’s life. It’s his definitive story that Frear’s dramatisation fails to match, but there’s still fun to be had with The Program.
Ben Foster is outstanding as Lance Armstrong, not least because he resembles his character so much. The two look so physically alike that at times Foster disappears into the role, to the point where the filmmakers confidently have him stood in front of pictures of his real life counterpart – teasing us to try and spot the difference, which at times is actually quite difficult.
As well as the physical similarities though, Foster carries Armstrong’s charisma and intensity with ease. It’s his central performance that really elevates The Program to another level, and as a fan of Foster anyway, it’s a joy to watch.
The combination of Frears and Foster is The Program’s biggest selling point. Together they’ve made an entertaining and, in places, fascinating portrayal of a complex subject. In terms of story though, it offers very little that we haven’t already seen or heard before.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com