Staff review: The Program

Ron Swanson, director of Parks and Recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, man’s man and modern day Paul Bunyan says: “There’s only one thing I hate more than lying. Skim milk. Which is water that’s lying about being milk”. 

The goal of criticism is to voice your opinion, but to also make it accessible, to be the voice of many whilst simultaneously being your own. So The Program, Stephen Frears' film about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, was always going to be a tough one for me, as cycling has always been a big part of my life. A small scar on my lip reminds me daily of my earlier flights between handlebars and concrete. My dad would sit me down in the middle of summer holidays to watch men I could barely see, ride their bikes for what seemed like eternity. It was in that time that I learned about Lance Armstrong; it was a few years later that I wore a LiveStrong wristband; and it was on ITV2 earlier this year that Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was retro-actively ruined by Armstrong delivering the penultimate inspiring speech (I’m not really angry about the effects Armstrong had on Dodgeball, of all his crimes, but I did once watch that film 5 times in a week). Apologies for the diary entry, but it’s not often in critiquing a film that I’m drawn to allude to my own life, rather than that of other films - an area in which I have far more familiarity and certainty; but The Program is a thing rarely encountered: a piece of art that provoked me, the person, not me the film critic. Me, the whole milk drinker. 

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program

Prior to his first Tour de France victory, Armstrong’s story was already well known, the inspiring cyclist who got back on the bike after fighting cancer and made it to the biggest bike race on the planet. Armstrong’s disease is first seen as a bloody, twisted mess, coughed out in the shower. It’s a tough scene to watch, it reaches down your throat and twists your gut, and that feeling stays there for the next two hours, thanks to the best villainous performance of this year.

Ben Foster’s Lance Armstrong is Patrick Bateman dressed in a Lycra three piece. His words are sickly sweet, almost David Brent like in their desire to please, but with the scary twist of complete self belief; after all, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world he didn’t exist - when really, he was hiding in plain site. After doping his way to seven titles, on returning to the tour after a brief ‘retirement’, Armstrong finished on the lowest level of the podium. Foster’s performance is perfectly contained in the delivery of one word to a colleague: “Third”. It is spoken by a man whose dream world of drugs, patches, and blood filled mini bars has been taken from him, it’s a hair pin moment, that puts Armstrong on the descent to admitting his crimes. But the quiver of his lips, the taught smile and the cold, fierce eyes reveal that he’s not looking for forgiveness; he’s saying, “If I can’t have this world, no one can”. And maybe that is the case, Armstrong was a drug addict, and the last thing that a drug addict wants to see is everyone else passing around the needles. He’s a cold, callous and almost unbelievable villain; and whilst watching, those unaware of the complexity and ruthlessness of his actions will be shocked, riled and nauseated. 

Chris O'Dowd as David Walsh, the journalist who exposed cycling's doping scandal

Although rooted in Foster’s performance, the film itself swirls and grows around him, rather than feeling bolted to his magnetic, imperial figure. Chris O’Dowd continues to impress, this time as David Walsh, the journalist who questioned Armstrong on doping throughout his career. He has far less meat to chew on than Foster but manages to be our grounded guide into this alien land. Armstrong’s power over the media, riders and even the sport itself is captured by O’Dowd; staring in disbelief as none of the press cars will take him to cover the Tour, due to his opinions on the reigning champion.

Frears makes himself known as director more than in recent work, Philomena and The Queen don’t exactly scream flashy, but using the dynamic nature of the sport as a springboard, Frears has some real fun. Individual title cards reminiscent of old fashioned heist films introduce the key characters; late 1990s style typography and split screens make the action feel like the TV highlights people would have seen the races unfold on; and the same goes for the soundtrack, highlights of the time, including Radiohead’s “No Surprises” used perfectly for when Armstrong doesn’t want any, well… Unfortunately, Frears does indulge a (hopefully short) penchant for Dutch angles that at first feels refreshing and a nod to Armstrong’s noir-esque dealings, but soon becomes irritating and overused; but that’s about as much in the way of obvious criticism that I can give.

Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program

As someone who felt extremely angered about Armstrong’s actions, seeing him villainised was a satisfying experience, perhaps Frears could have used this film as an opportunity to raise the debate over whether Armstrong’s suffering and charitable work is suitable penance for his actions. Thankfully he doesn’t, he creates a villain to stand on the podium of the greats, an American Psycho, with the performance enhancing power of being real.

Jake Cunningham is a member of staff at Curzon Canterbury and Editor-at-large of Hungry Eye Film & Photography Journal (where this piece originally appeared).

The Program is released in our cinemas on Friday 16 October. Watch the trailer here.