Monday 27 December 2021

Movie Review: The Program (2015)

A biographical sports drama, The Program chronicles the chemically-enhanced rise of a fraud to the pinnacle of world cycling.

In the 1990s, American cyclist Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) starts to participate in the Tour de France. He notices the top teams are under the care of Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), who administers chemicals like Erythropoietin (EPO) to enhance performance. A testicular cancer diagnosis interrupts Armstrong's career and he undergoes brutal rounds of chemotherapy treatment.

Upon his return to racing, Armstrong is not considered a contender. But determined to win, he recruits Dr. Ferrari's doping services along with Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) as team director, and they select teammates with the singular purpose of propelling Armstrong to a win. He is promptly victorious in 1999, crushing the field. Sunday Times reporter David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) is suspicious of Armstrong's dramatically improved performance, but as the American proceeds to dominate the sport, proof of his doping is frustratingly difficult to secure.

Directed by Stephen Frears with a script by John Hodge, The Program adapts Walsh's book Seven Deadly Sins. The reporter is a relatively minor character in the film, with Frears focussing most of his attention on Armstrong as a headstrong phony. In a sport where not cheating means not winning, Armstrong and his crew are portrayed as perfecting doping and test evasion into an art form. His personal story of recovery from cancer provides cover from criticism, while an acquiescent media and inspired fans are happy to celebrate a feel-good story and avoid asking any questions.

The film adopts a relatively straightforward semi-documentary style, with the picturesque racing scenes adding some panache. With Walsh's investigation finding limited traction and a stone-faced liar occupying the story's centre, Frears is caught without a sympathetic protagonist. Ben Foster is in stoic form as a mechanical coldness permeates the narrative, the roboticization aided by an absence of context about Armstrong's formative years.

The Program does succeed in portraying a crass win-at-all-costs mentality devoid of sportsmanship. Armstrong builds a commercial empire on the back of his fake victories, rising to the top echelons of celebrity athletes and brand name recognition. Frears covers Armstrong's charitable work with cancer patients as the one ray of goodness within a jungle of deception.

The recruitment of Mennonite Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) into Armstrong's team introduces ethical tension and starts the sequence of events eventually exposing the truth. Also playing a role is professional bridge player and prize money insurance agent Bob Hamman (Dustin Hoffman, in just a couple of scenes), who smells a fraud and starts making inquiries. But the characters remain in the shadows of mendacity, and perhaps appropriately for a sport that sold its soul, The Program replaces the warmth of human achievement with bloodless efficiency.

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