The Program movie review: on your bike and follow the money (LFF 2015)

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The Program yellow light

Pretty much strictly for fans of Ben Foster and Chris O’Dowd, who are both superb here. Probably not for fans of Lance Armstrong (if he still has any left).
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Program for its representation of girls and women.

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Fri, Oct 16, 2015 7:49pm

Interesting! I hadn’t heard of The Armstrong Lie, but I’m definitely going to check that one out. I became interested in the Tour de France after Greg Lemond’s win back in the mid-1980s (BTW, there’s a fantastic film about that whole titanic struggle called Slaying the Badger that was on ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30–Lemond was warned in mid-race by a TdF official that the peleton [the rest of the journeymen racers who were there for their lead teammate] was gunning for him and would not hesitate to physically take him out of the race if he was beating the world’s top rider, Bernard Hinault). Armstrong’s wins reminded me about the race in the late ’90s, but the whole doping thing, and the fact that it was finally being broadcast on a channel I had access to, got me to tune in in the late 2000s.

I highly recommend watching it next July to anyone who can, because the race itself is gorgeously filmed by experienced people, and then you get sucked into rooting for individual riders, and then you become familiar with the team dynamics and their strategies. (The Lemond doc delves deeply into this, because those strategies were behind the rivalry between him and Hinault.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kathy_A
Sat, Oct 17, 2015 8:58am

The Tour came through London last summer, and I stood around waiting for several hours for the riders to zip through in about 30 seconds. It was very exciting!