The Program

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Not the Hollywood movie that it started out as over a decade ago, but still far from terrible.
★★★
Movie Review #1,062

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Distributed by Entertainment One and Momentum Pictures. Biography, Drama, Sport. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Rated R for language. Released March 18, 2016. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay by John Hodge, from the book by David Walsh. Starring Lance Armstrong, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Denis Ménochet, Edward Hogg, and Dustin Hoffman.

If we truly live in a society where a person should be defined by a single controversy, then perhaps we should stop recognizing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” because one of its stars is a child molester and another one of its stars killed somebody while on vacation in Ireland. My point stands with many celebrities, including Lance Armstrong. I will not defend Lance for his actions with regard to cheating in seven consecutive Tours de France. But at the same time, I will never view him as anything less than a hero. I respect the man, and I view him as an icon for determination, hard work, and perseverance. Let’s not forget, Lance has accomplished outstanding feats purely through his own effort and willpower. He fought through three separate cancers almost simultaneously, and he raised over half a billion dollars for cancer research through his foundation (Livestrong). If you think either of those can be done easily, I challenge you to accomplish either one of them.

“The Program” depicts Lance in a fair and respectable light. We see him here as a man we can admire and enjoy. That works well in contrast with the film’s titular focus: what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” in the history of pro cycling (which, I have come to understand, is a sport in which doping is fairly common). In layman’s term, Lance is an antihero in this movie. There are many scenes in “The Program” that feel inspiring. We see Lance pay a hospital visit to young children battling cancer. In one instance, Lance ignores the busy fundraising schedule that has been laid out for him, in order to spend time getting to know a particularly shy cancer patient. This scene, along with a handful of others, is truly touching. However, we must balance those moments with the ones that stand in stark contrast, where we watch Lance and his teammates lying down as they intravenously feed EPO into their bodies.

Ben Foster may hardly look like Lance, but he sure does a damn good job playing him. This man’s completely unrecognizable face adds further authenticity to the character he develops; as does his use of performance-enhancing drugs while filming, a method unbeknownst to the entire cast and crew until after the film was completed. In a film that features Dustin Hoffman in an important role, you’ve got to hand it to the guy who not only outperforms Hoffman, but also matches the creative forms of method acting on which Hoffman has built his entire career.

But acting alone isn’t enough to develop a character or his story to their fullest. That’s the one problem that appears to pull “The Program” below its potential. Despite ever enthralling rise and every shocking fall Stephen Frears’s film presents, the script never truly digs as deep as we’d like it to. Rather than elaborating on many specific moments, the narrative seems more concerned with shifting chronologically from event to event. I would imagine the storyboard could parallel a timeline one might find on a museum wall, with numerous event and descriptions that give us just enough information. But “just enough” on a museum timeline is a bar set much lower than “just enough” on film. As the young ones on a series of AT&T commercials told us a few years ago, we want more, we want more, we want more.

You don’t expect any meta dialogue in a straightforward, biographical drama such as “The Program”, but in a way, it’s there. A film about Lance Armstrong had been in development since the early 2000s, so we’re treated to entertaining discussions among Lance and his teammates about who will play him in the movie. At an early point, Matt Damon is in consideration, and it is set to be a Hollywood movie. It’s rather unfortunate how drastically the project changed after Lance’s fateful revelation in 2011. The film they are discussing finally came to fruition over a decade after development started. It’s the very film we’re watching. But rather than a Hollywood production with Matt Damon, it’s an independent film, produced outside the U.S., starring the still up-and-coming Ben Foster. What’s more, you more than likely had not heard of “The Program” until you stumbled across this review. The good news is, it’s far from a terrible movie. Lord knows the Hollywood movie could have been an utter misfire, and I’ll take a decent movie that no one has heard of, over a pile of shit that everybody and their dogs knows about, any day of the week.

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