The Program (15)

Ritwik Sarkar saw the intense biopic of Lance Armstrong this week - was he cheated or was he treated?

2nd November 2015

Donning the yellow jacket and portraying Lance Armstrong on the silver screen could be strong material for an Oscar win or the gravest career error. Luckily for Ben Foster (and somewhat unsurprisingly), the former is more applicable.

Portraying the man who evangelised the sport of cycling with almost messianic zeal, while defrauding it quite literally from the inside was no easy task. Foster, however, embodied every damaged red blood cell of the cyclist to eerie near-perfection.

To those who were expecting a dramatic fall from grace were largely disappointed with the film’s direction. What they are treated to instead is a gradual, measured and captivating portrayal of the seven-time winner, which highlights the extent of his achievements as much as it does his sociopathic persona.

Shaking off the two documentaries that preceded this film, Frears’ work is a more fictionalised interpretation of the story. Not one to shy away from raw emotions, the director’s intent in this movie has been made very clear – to show how damaged the sport really is, with Armstrong as the primary reason.

Where the film really succeeds is making the smallest moments feel like lynchpins, while the grander moments take a back seat. Such a situation really allows all characters, major and minor, to take centre stage.

"a gradual, measured and captivating portrayal of the seven-time winner, which highlights the extent of his achievements as well as his sociopathic persona"

Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons as Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis, a devout Mennonite coaxed into joining what amounted to the USPS team’s doping support staff, is the kind of performance that launches a career. Frears and screenwriter John Hodge go commendably deeper with this character, the first to be caught for a practice that the whole Armstrong unit had been getting away with for years. Plemons makes him bristle with his inner demons, presenting his character as the only one with a modicum of repentance for his actions.

With similar success, Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) brings David Walsh to life, as both Armstrong’s most important supporter as well as his fiercest critic. Walsh’s suspicion of Armstrong, and the dogged denial of his publishers, drives the story forward to an emphatic crescendo.

The support of these two actors builds in perfectly to construct Foster’s Armstrong as a man changed. Changed not by his recovery from cancer, but a man transformed into a monster by the slimmest of chances to become a better racer. Foster’s physical transformation into a leaner physique is not one affected by the ravaging of chemotherapy, but by an unbelievable commitment to get more than skin deep.

The ‘most sophisticated doping scheme in sport’ is what really captivates the viewers, as there is little room to breathe in a movie that meticulously unfolds the intricacies of large-scale doping. Vindication for his actions are almost empathetic, as the movie forces you to admire (however begrudgingly) the near genius of Armstrong’s endeavour, and how he had the world fooled for so long.

The heroic fight with cancer, the meticulous use of drugs and the admission of it all end in a questionable ride into the sunset. While that may irk many, Foster’s portrayal and the performances of the stellar supporting cast deserve nothing less.

More like this: The Armstrong Lie (2013)

Rating: 6/10

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