Directed by Stephen Frears
Country: UK / France
“The Program” is a biographical film about the cyclist Lance Armstrong that fails to become something more than just a brittle sport report.
Before starting to watch the film, I was informed that the reputable Stephen Frears had directed this film. So, I was quite sure that Lance Armstrong’s story would be at least watchable and minimally stimulating, taking into account the director's previous acclaimed features, namely “Dangerous Liaisons”, “High Fidelity”, “The Queen”, and “Philomena”. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The spot-on dramatic turns, narrative elegance, and attention to detail, are all factors that Mr. Frears didn’t bother to bring to “The Program”.
A different context? No doubt! But it’s still hard to find something worthy here.
Not even the sensational cast, which includes names such as Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Edward Hogg, Lee Pace, and the veteran Dustin Hoffman, gives us a true reason to see the film.
The issues have its origins in the screenplay by the Scottish John Hoge, who deserves all my respect for the meritorious work in Danny Boyle’s past films, especially the first ones, “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting”. Mr. Hoge sought inspiration on the awarded book “Seven Deadly Sins” by the Irish journalist of the Sunday Times, David Walsh. All the same, unable to outwit the narrative narrowness, he unsuccessfully tries to consolidate and balance the different phases of Armstrong’s career.
The chronicle starts in France in 1993, when Lance (Foster) shows a colossal ambition to become a great cyclist. ‘It’s not about having good legs or lungs. It’s about having heart.’- we hear him saying in voice-over. When Dr. Michele Ferrari (Canet), elucidates he will never be good for the mountains because of his body ratio, Lance seems not to pay much attention. Instead, his mind is totally occupied by a stage three testicular cancer already with metastases in the head. Lance wins the battle against the illness after a delicate surgery, just to become an idol to many. This is when he decides to create a research center and charity organization to help people fighting the same condition.
Simultaneously, and envisioning a return to the competition, he starts working out. A new team, a new sponsor, and a new agent are part of the idea. Still, he continues dangerously associated with Dr. Ferrari, who introduces him to EPO, a drug that turns him invincible. This drug is harmless if administrated with the right dosage, and undetectable if quickly eliminated through a blood transfusion. Expanding this practice among his teammates, who work solely for his own benefit, the vain Lance becomes the leader of a sophisticated doping program that for several years will undermine cycling.
He wins seven Tour titles, repeatedly using cancer benefaction as a subterfuge for his blameworthy doping usage.
These irregularities wouldn’t have come to the surface without the persistence (along 13 years) of the vigilant David Walsh (O’Dowd), who confessed having lost his faith in the sport. Incredulous and determined in finding the truth, he questions how could a road racing cyclist become the best climber, right after beating cancer, when previously his best result had been a modest 39th position.
With negligible variations of pace, “The Program” showcases unaesthetic directorial procedures, aggravated by a misadjusted pop-rock soundtrack and a mediocre cinematography. Just like Lance Armstrong, Mr. Frears forges the road to glory in an inglorious misstep.