The Program
dir Stephen Frears
scr John Hodge
prd Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seaward, Kate Solomon
with Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Pace, Elaine Cassidy, Laura Donnelly, Edward Hogg, Bryan Greenberg, Sam Hoare
release UK 16.Oct.15, UK 18.Mar.16
15/UK StudioCanal 1h44
The Program
Pushed to the limit: Foster in the lead

odowd plemons hoffman
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Program With a quick pace and steely tone, this drama traces Lance Armstrong's career in a strikingly lucid way. Never simplistic, it sees the events through the cyclist's own perspective, acknowledging the moral issues while carefully exploring why a sportsman would cheat his way to success. Anchored by a bracing performance from Foster, this is also one of the edgiest movies in Frears' eclectic filmography.

A rising-star cyclist at age 25, Lance (Foster) was treated for advanced cancer in 1996 and retrained himself as a long-distance cyclist with his own cancer charity. And he went on to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles. Lance justified his elaborate programme of banned substances and processes because it was the way the sport worked. But his friend, Irish journalist David Walsh (O'Dowd), noticed something was amiss. His articles about Lance's doping were discredited in court, clearing Lance's name despite his known association with controversial doctor Michele Ferari (Canet).

Of course, Armstrong's carefully constructed public persona came crashing down in 2010 with a colleague's confession about systematic doping in the sport. Armstrong finally admitted it in 2013. Without a surprise in the story, screenwriter Hodge generates an internalised sense of momentum and suspense that keeps the film gripping. Essentially, we're watching Armstrong's moral compass swing in circles, wondering how far he can justify his actions as people around him continually ask the questions.

Foster's performance is both wrenchingly physical and darkly personal, digging so deeply into Armstrong's psyche that the audience can understand how he justified his determination to subvert the rules of his sport. The other stand-out in the cast is Plemons as an ambitious rider haunted by his devout Mennonite roots. And Menochet is terrific as Armstrong's team manager Johan Bruyneel. O'Dowd is solid as Walsh, even though the character seems to hover mainly the background, which is odd since the film is based on Walsh's expose Seven Deadly Sins.

Anchored tightly on Armstrong himself, the film is beautifully shot and edited by Danny Cohen and Valerio Bonelli, respectively. Frears keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, playing on the whooshing cycling sequences and images of triumph over adversity that characterise Armstrong's career, while cutting to the seedy underbelly of injections and intravenous blood-swapping. And what makes the film important is its exploration of breaking rules and using any means to cover the tracks. This win-at-any-cost culture certainly isn't limited to sports.

cert 15 themes, language, grisliness 4.Aug.15

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© 2015 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall