In The Program, noted director Stephen Frears tells the incredible true life story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, in a heart-thumping tale of one man’s pursuit of excellence. Here’s the synopsis:
The world needs heroes and Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster) was the ultimate sporting hero. Following a gruelling battle with cancer, Lance returned to his cycling career in 1999 more determined than ever to win the Tour de France. With the help of the infamous Italian physician Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), Armstrong developed the most sophisticated doping program in the history of the sport, going on to win the tour seven times. But not everyone bought the lie, and the result was one of the greatest sporting downfalls the world has ever seen.
5. The need for speed
Packed with breathtaking scenes of professional cycling, cinematographer Danny Cohen captures the intensity of professional racing as Armstrong and his teammates take on the Tour de France. The shots are tight, and pull audiences into the sweat and aggression as Armstrong blasts past his competition in high-intensity sprints. But Cohen’s work also serves to highlight the benefits of the drugs that Armstrong pumps into himself, along with showcasing the egotistical and fervently obsessed person he becomes through their use.
4. Money, fame and the cost of reward
The size and scope of The Program has the feeling of a global conspiracy with a criss-cross of countries and personalities as Armstrong does whatever he can to win. Frears interjects the personalities of its circuit from Armstrong’s money-centric lawyer/agent Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace) to his former teammate and tour champion Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemmons), who falls victim to Lance’s desire for victory, before finally caving to his own heavy conscience. By showcasing the money and fame that awaits Armstrong as a tour champion, Frears builds empathy in his audience and an understanding of what would make someone willing to cross the line in both sporting ethics and personal health in order to win no matter the cost.
3. Chris O’Dowd as David Walsh: a journalist in search for the truth
While The Program is a meditation on the heroic rise and tragic fall of one of this century’s most notorious sporting personalities, Frears also brings in elements of a journalistic procedural with Chris O’Dowd’s performance as gutsy investigative reporter David Walsh. Frears and Chris O’Dowd create a portrait of a man who sees through the lies and the physical impossibility of what is in front of him. Walsh is the last honest man, thoroughly incorruptible out of a desire to see the sport he loves return to its former glory. It is an impressive performance from O’Dowd, who stands toe-to-toe against Foster as the film’s moral center, and who is never undeterred in his stance to bring down the world’s greatest cheat.
2. The hero and the lie
Part of what makes The Program so compelling is the way director Stephen Frears juxtaposes Armstrong’s status as a hero with his position as a cheat. One scene comes to mind when Armstrong meets with a terminally ill boy suffering from cancer that will have audiences in tears. It’s a compelling scene that highlights the good that his position brought to so many through his charity. But behind all of it was a devastating lie, and this fundamentally robs him of the good that be brought to so many people. These shifting character portraits of Armstrong as both hero and cheater create a vivid and complex character, and will cause audiences to question their own views of who they look up to.
1. Ben Foster: the speed god
When it comes down to it, The Program belongs to Ben Foster, who amazes with a completely trans-formative performance as the world’s most controversial athlete. Whether portraying Armstrong’s gut-wrenching battle with cancer, or his dogged pursuit to be the best, Foster is a force to be reckoned with. From the moment he steps on screen you’re not seeing an impression, you’re seeing the man himself.
Image source: Studio Canal.