Tuesday 29 September 2015

Zurich Film Festival - The Program

The Program (103 mins)
Director: Stephen Frears
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong was fairly well covered a couple of years ago in Alex Gibney’s probing doc, The Armstrong Lie. But, just as The Walk from last week re-trod the ground of Man On Wire, here now is a dramatisation of those events that works reasonably as a companion piece.

Beginning in the mid 90s, Armstrong (Ben Foster) is the new kid on the cycling block, taking part in his first Tour De France and presenting us with an ambitious and determined individual. Everyone knows the winners dope so Armstrong approaches an Italian doctor asking to become part of his programme, where he’s administered a performance-enhancing drug called EPO.

Though fairly simplistic, the film does well to focus on the cycling and the attendant controversies, with Chris O’Dowd as the journalist who digs into the scandal of the endemic doping and the code of silence that protects a rancid sport and its riches.

The cycling footage gets right in amongst it, throwing in some archive stuff too to really get a sense of the crowds. It rattles through Armstrong’s cancer treatment and recovery while sensibly leaving out plenty of personal life material that could only have made this an even more functional biopic than it already is.

It also works by presenting several sides of Armstrong - the public adore him, and undoubtedly his charity work that raised millions for cancer research was a good thing. As a character he’s able to overcome the limitations of the film and Foster is very good, capturing well this persona of manipulation and self-belief. It’s those very flaws and contradictions in Armstrong that keep The Program interesting even if in many regards it’s A to B stuff. It’s by no means a great movie, but it’s about such a compelling man that by having this guy at its centre it more or less succeeds despite the uninspired filmmaking.

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