One of the more anticipated films of the festival is Stephen Frears’ The Program, the story of Lance Armstrong’s rise to international sporting treasure and fall to maligned public figure due to a career supported by doping. The one thing that struck me about the film was that the press release was rather misleading. It seemed to promise a Lance Armstrong versus David Walsh movie (or Ben Foster versus Chris O’Dowd depending on how you want to view it), in a similar vein to 2008’s Frost/Nixon. This description was fairly inaccurate, and what I was presented with instead was a damning, but rather nuanced, portrait of Armstrong himself.
Now I am by no means a sports fan, but it is always a good sign when a filmmaker can even get the likes of myself on board. Moreover, I have always liked Stephen Frears’ films; he made High Fidelity, so he always has a place in my heart. In recent years as a director, Frears seems to take no interest in formal eccentricities; he simply relies on good performances and solid direction. Therefore, it is much to my surprise that the portrait of Lance Armstrong presented is ultimately damning, but at times sympathetic and complex.
Ben Foster is the real stand out here, portraying Armstrong’s early innocence and passion for cycling, which morphs into a sinister, almost fascist, desire for victory and control over others. There are some standout scenes for Foster including a great homage to Scorsese’s Travis Bickle, in which Armstrong goes through his lines looking at a mirror and professing innocence before a press conference. Each inflection through which he delivers the same lines adds to the psychological complexity of the character and his continuous construction of a façade that displays a passion for sport over a passion for victory.
However, scenes in the film in which Armstrong promotes the LIVESTRONG brand almost conjure sympathy for the character. He professes to have ‘lived strong’ throughout his cancer treatment, yet we are privy to his true struggle and the weakness he experienced in the midst of chemotherapy. Foster’s portrayal of Armstrong ultimately damns him, but we learn the problems in professing an iconic status that does not reflect the complexities and failings of a real person.
At the same time, the other top biller, Chris O’Dowd builds effectively on his more ‘serious’ roles, such as Calgary, but is not given enough material to work with like Foster. His performance is perfectly good, but with the inaccuracy of the film’s synopsis, I was left a little disappointed that O’Dowd’s David Walsh ultimately had very little effect on Armstrong’s unfolding damnation in the narrative trajectory.
All in all, The Program is a perfectly fine film and not particularly formally complex. Its focus on Foster’s ingenious performance was probably a good move for the filmmakers.
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