Film Review: The Program

by Mark Woodhouse

Rated M. Starring Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Stephen Frears.

Champion, hero, legend… cheat.

The Program is a dramatic retelling of Lance Armstrong’s (Foster) career as a champion cyclist and chronic cheat. It’s based on the book Seven Deadly Sins by investigative journalist David Walsh (O’Dowd), and details Walsh’s attempt to uncover the systematic doping by Armstrong and his team.

If you’re interested in this film, you probably already know the ending. You’ve probably already seen the ending. But you may not know the extent of the deception Armstrong and his team got away with for so long. You may not know the bullying, the manipulation, and the willingness to bend and break every rule possible.

It’s a brilliant story. It’s a shame that it’s just not told very well by this film. It feels a bit more like little episodes, snippets of time strung together into a feature-length film. Sure, they all tell the same story, but the tension isn’t built like it could be.

It’s definitely a film about a sporting controversy and a fraudulent career, and not about the man Lance Armstrong. The focus is on Walsh’s investigation into doping, and it’s fascinating to watch Armstrong stay one step ahead for years. But it means the film largely steers clear of Armstrong’s personal life, giving it a certain feeling of shallowness.

It makes sense, then, that best parts of The Program are the bike races. There are fewer good sporting sequences in films than there were drug-free cyclists in the late 90s, but The Program does it really well. Credit goes to David Millar (former professional cyclist and himself a drug cheat) who consulted on the film. The scenes are fast, tense, and make the most of spectacular Alpine views. They’ve also skilfully cut archival footage of the Tour de France with film footage, and it feels like one second we’re watching it on TV with the rest of the world, and the next we’re there in the race with the riders.  

Foster is really good as Armstrong (In fact, there’s not a single weakness in the casting, which is excellent), as is O’Dowd as journalist Walsh, but the most interesting character for me was Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). He’s the young, bright-eyed rising star from a devout Mennonite family who is placed on ‘the program’ after joining Armstrong US Postal Service team. It’s his struggle with the cheating and lies that I found most captivating.

It’s a shocking thing to see that so many people knew what was happening, and so many people covered it up. There are so many obvious lies in the film that it’s begins to be hard to believe anything that gets said.

How many people would say this is OK? Where would you draw the line?

Luckily for us, God never lies. God speaks truth. In fact, God IS truth. We can indeed trust Jesus, who didn’t count his position of power something to be grasped (a bit like Armstrong), but instead humbled himself by becoming man and by dying on the cross for us. Lance Armstrong teaches us a lot about Jesus in the ways that he is unlike Jesus.

The Verdict: The Program is a brilliant story poorly (but accurately) told, and is definitely a movie to watch for cycling fans. 2.5/5

The Program will be released in Australia this Thursday, 26th November.

For more film reviews from a Christian perspective, connect with Reel Gospel on Facebook and Twitter.

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