The Program Review - The Lance Armstrong Biopic Should Have Just Been A Documentary

[LFF 2015] Ben Foster does his best with confused material.

Rating: ˜…˜… There hasn't been a movie that more needed to be a documentary than The Program. For all its outward sheen, Stephen Fears' Lance Armstrong biopic is just so full of nonfictional tropes - freeze frame character intros with fly-in name effects, incessant archive footage, flashbacks as people describe what we're seeing - that he could drop the actors, chuck in a few talking heads and it'd lose none of its narrative impact. We have, of course, already had a documentary on the cycling doping scandal - 2013's The Armstrong Lie - but this isn't a situation a la The Walk and Man On Wire. That's partially because The Armstrong Lie isn't anywhere near the quality of Man On Wire, but mainly because there is a distinct difference between The Program and Alex Gibney's retroactive tell-all; the aim of this film isn't to show what actually happened, but find out why. Admirable, of course, but then those doc-tropes are merely the result of poor filmmaking - a lazy way to stretch the film's limited budget - rather than having any real purpose. You have to salute Frears' frugality, but it doesn't really work. The archive footage is particularly cheap - it's used for pretty much all the non-dialogue race sequences, essentially cutting out the need for a second unit crew. Seeing the crisp, HD dramatic elements suddenly cut to late-90s location footage is jarring and feels like a waste after a pretty impressive opening shot of Armstrong panting his way up the hill showed the film could do dynamism.
There may have been some hand-wavy justification in the editing room that this approach highlighted the media's part in the story (the grainy quality of the real-life coverage is faker than the truth), but really that was only the filmmakers trying to trick themselves. If anything, it only cheapens that side of the story, making Chris O'Dowd's David Walsh, the journalist who uncovered the truth in the face of industry-level pressure, feel a bit disconnected for much of the film. That's one of two intertwined subplots that pop up every now and then to throw up vaguely conflicting moral ideals, only to be dropped seemingly at random (the other involves Breaking Bad's Jesse Plemons as a guilt-ridden Floyd Landis). It's the sort of thing you'd get in a documentary due to the intrinsic approach to focus, but in a dramatisation it comes across simply as sloppy writing. I will give it to Ben Foster though - he's solid as Lance, particularly in later scenes where all semblance of timidity is gone and he's a fully formed egotist. The problem is he's just not given the time to really show Armstrong loose sight of why he cycles; nobody sets out to be a cheat in real life, but thanks to a lack of focus on the right thing at the right point here we get the feeling that this guy did. Maybe that's the big issue. The Program is a film that wants to blur the lines between reality and the screen, but its inability to stick to a style make it just as fake as Armstrong's Tour de France wins. Not as bad, of course, but still pretty disappointing. Seen as part of the London Film Festival 2015.
The Program is in UK cinemas from 16th October.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.