Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Denis Menochet, Lee Pace and Dustin Hoffman
Plot: Lance Armstrong (Foster) is a cyclist who is obsessed with winning. However to reach the next level, he believes he needs to take performance enhancing drugs.
The Program is a sports movie with a twist. Films like Rush or Rocky were all about the euphoric race for the title, the ending that saw the hero win the title or go the distance. The happy ending involved the title character achieving his dreams. The Program, of course, is not that movie. Everyone should know the story of Lance Armstrong by now. Up and coming cyclist is diagnosed with cancer and barely survives. However, when he returns healthy, he made history by breaking records and winning the Tour de France more times than any cyclist in sporting history. He set up charities to combat cancer, he was the childhood hero for any underdog sportsmen out there and was a national hero for America. And then we all found out it was a lie. Armstrong, right from the very start, was using performance enhancing drugs to win his races. The last decade of cycling was cast in shame, as we found out it was all fiction. The Program is just as much a gangster movie as a sports movie. We are given this villainous character and spend the whole movie, waiting for his downfall.
Of course, removing fact from the equation and focusing on this movie as a piece of cinema, it is hard to deny that Armstrong makes for a great character. He could be the movie villain of 2015, made all the more hard-hitting because he is actually a man who exists (the movie ends with a title card quoting Armstrong in 2015, clarifying that he holds no shame for his actions throughout the movie). For Ben Foster, an actor who has never really had a title role like this, it is the job of a lifetime. The actor is easily the star of the show, diving into a performance so intense, so despicable and so intimate, seeing as it all actually happened. Foster plays Armstrong as a man, obsessed with winning. It is surprising how easily he is seduced by the performance enhancing drugs, seeing it as a means to an end for being the best cyclist out there. He never questions the ethics of it, merely seeing it as a means to an end. Even more horrifically, he gets the younger members of his team to take these drugs, making it out that it is the done thing, ruining the life of Jesse Plemon’s newbie cyclist. Perhaps Frears greatest feat is the way that, for a few scenes, we almost feel sorry for Armstrong – maybe even agreeing with him for a point. In the early half of the movie, Armstrong is adamant that he will use the fame and fortune he gets from his cheated victories to set up cancer support and charities for those in the same position he was. There is one scene where he visits a kid suffering from cancer, where you perhaps begin to wonder if the greater good makes his crimes worth it. If he does do all of these amazing things for charity, perhaps we, like the media back at the height of Armstrong’s reign, look the other way. However, as the movie hits its second half, Armstrong goes full monster. The charity plot becomes less a physical side of Armstrong’s motivations and more of a shield to protect himself from allegations. He becomes obsessed with winning, a monster addicted to being the best in the world. By the end of the movie, Foster’s performance is up there with Pacino’s Scarface, De Niro’s Capone or Di Caprio’s Belfort, a criminal so caught up in his imagined power that he doesn’t see his downfall until it is too late. When it all crumbles, in the space of a final twenty minutes, we see Foster’s character evaporate into a quiet denial, unable to admit that his sporting life is over. Chris O’Dowd’s character becomes a very important foil for the movie, the Sunday Times writer, David Walsh, who is the only man who stands against Armstrong, determined to oust him as the cheat he is. The character’s determination is just as powerful as Armstrong’s greed, O’Dowd’s best performance in anything as well. He is made out to be a miserable cynic, a pathetic man casting a shadow over a wonderful sport by tarnishing the reputation of a hero. In truth, he is the only one fighting for it, a battle that almost tears apart his own reputation, all for acquiring the truth that everyone else is too blind to see. As a result, The Program, despite being a movie about a man who almost tears apart the honesty of sport, ends up as a film celebrating everything about the world of sport.
Final Verdict: Foster’s Armstrong could be the villain of the year, Frears movie detailing exactly how the biggest sporting scandal in recent history came about.