Film Review: The Program (★★★★)

Thanks the annual barrage of prestige-sounding biopics, my threshold for enthusiasm of biopics has hardened over time.  Often, biopics tend to be thrown together, supergluing Greatest Hits to form a bumpy narrative which forms a flaccid arc for the film’s main character.  Indeed, when I heard about The Program, the new Lance Armstrong biopic from The Queen and Philomena director Stephen Frears, starring Ben Foster as the cancer-surviving megalomaniac, I feared the worse.  And then I watched it.

Lance Armstrong is perhaps one of the most compelling public figures of the 21st century.  He’s a cancer survivor.  He’s an athlete.  He WON a global competition seven consecutive times.  He put not only cycling on the map, but gave a widened notoriety to the Tour de France.  He was a doper.  He was a compulsive liar.  He was a monster.  He was a hero, the inspiration of thousands of people suffering from cancer.  That’s what makes his story so compelling–HE is so compelling.

Ben Foster is blessed with a resemblance to Armstrong that, but for a remarkable performance as the cyclist, one would solely attribute his casting to.  Foster cleverly blends Armstrong’s best and worst attributes into a single human, who showed the world his best side, while exposed his worst to everyone who got in his path.  Much of Foster’s performance is hidden in his face–the duplicitous shifting of his eyes, the emotionless stoicism of his cheeks and brow, and the pencil-thin twinge of his mouth when angered.  When the script (brilliantly balanced by frequent Danny Boyle collaborator, John Hodge) calls for Armstrong, high on his Ozymandian throne, both to himself and to the world, to explode, Foster does so with the careful and bombastic restraint of someone who has never once thought of his inevitable downfall–the cockiness of someone too impressed with the towering nature of their house of cards that the idea of it tumbling down if but a footnote.   In short, Foster nails it.

Two-time Oscar nominee Frears is no slouch either, helming perhaps his most un-Frears film in decades, fast-paced and fun.  Perhaps due in part to Hodges’ script, the film plays like Danny Boyle-lite, which is neither a ding on Frears nor an outright praise of the film.  Cinematographer Danny Cohen constructs some beautiful shots of the bicycle races, including one wonderful sequence where he follows, at peddle height, Armstrong as the zips and weaves through and past his competitors.

The film’s supporting cast, lead by Tony nominee Chris O’Dowd, Emmy nominee Lee Pace, and the immersive Jesse Plemons are a delight, too.

The Program never paints Armstrong as sympathetic–which is a delight.  Too often biopics resort to apologizing for their prickly main characters, but The Program doesn’t pull any punches, showing Armstrong threatening to ruin other racers’ lives, threatening to sue those accusing him of doping, etc. Indeed, the film instead seeks to focus on his compelling figure–as a cancer-surviving cheater.  Numerous times throughout the film, we see not only Armstrong feel joy from the goodwill generated by his LiveStrong charity, but we also see how people with cancer were deeply, truly, and undeniable affected by Armstrong’s story and achievements, an opus to be proud of though its written in the sand.  We see a smile creep across the face of a sad cancer-stricken child when Armstrong visits him and treats him not as a sick kid, but as a kid. We see the woman at a book signing tell Armstrong that his story saved her life.  And yet, at the same time, and unlike Steve Jobs, for example, The Program doesn’t say, “and all that makes his behavior okay.”  Rather, to the exact opposite, the film’s thesis is that this horrible corrupt man could have done so much good, had he not obsessed over his own fairy tale.

Highly recommend this.

Check out the trailer, below.