If you’ve seen the far superior documentary on the same subject, The Armstrong Lie, you can probably safely skip The Program, unless you’re a huge fan of either Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) — who here nails cyclist Lance Armstrong’s now notoriously well-known sociopathic narcissism — or Chris O’Dowd (Cuban Fury), as David Walsh, the sports journalist for the Times of London who doggedly investigated the athlete, whom he (correctly, as it turned out) suspected of doping, over the course of Armstrong’s unprecedented seven-year winning streak at the Tour de France, from 1999 to 2005. The film is based on Walsh’s book about his pursuit of the Armstrong story, so it’s hardly surprising that it casts Walsh as the cynical yet plucky voice of reason amidst a sea of cheering Armstrong supporters… good thing O’Dowd, who just keeps getting more and more interesting as an actor, is so engaging and amusing and perfectly suited for such a role. (Or, if you’re not already a fan of Foster or O’Dowd, check them out here and see how great actors can transform a familiar, so-so script. Both are superb here.) While Lie was more about the cult of celebrity that protected Armstrong, The Program — written by John Hodge (Trance) and directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena) — focuses more on the “follow the money” aspect of the whole clusterfuck, from Armstrong’s powers in the cancer-research-fundraising realm to the Tour de France organization, which, it is suggested, enabled Armstrong’s doping because his repeated wins and cancer-suvivor legend turned the event into a global brand. This is solid but unexciting filmmaking, and you won’t learn a single new thing about Armstrong, Big Sports, or really anything at all. But another angry reminder that money ruins so many things is always welcome.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival