The Program (15)
Verdict: So-so drug-cheat drama
This dramatisation of the rise and fall of the morally delinquent cyclist Lance Armstrong certainly comes with heavyweight credentials.
The director is the vastly experienced Stephen Frears, whose last film was the marvellous Philomena.
Chris O’Dowd plays Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who risked his own reputation by so tirelessly trying to expose Armstrong, a man lionised not just for winning the Tour de France seven times but also for his committed charity work, as an egregious drugs cheat.
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Praise: American actor Ben Foster is ‘terrific’ as Lance Armstrong in new film The Program
Based on Walsh’s own book, it is certainly a dramatic tale.
But here’s the thing: it has already been given full cinematic treatment in the excellent 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, which was more tense, and stirred the emotions more effectively, than this film does.
Maybe it was because I already know the story so well that I never felt fully engaged.
Certainly, American actor Ben Foster is terrific as Armstrong, and O’Dowd is just fine, although in the end he seems an oddly peripheral player in the drama, there mainly to say: ‘I told you so.’
Pinkie swear: Ben Foster and Chris O’Dowd, who plays Sunday Times writer David Walsh, at screening of The Program at The BFI London Film Festival at in London this week
The film’s title refers to the ‘program’ of performance-enhancing drug-taking, run by the callously ambitious doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), which yielded such success for Armstrong and his fellow riders in the U.S. Postal team.
It suggests that Armstrong’s recovery from the cancer that very nearly killed him was the major catalyst in the cheating process — ‘after the disease I never want to be that close to losing again’, he says.
But I’d have liked to see it cover the ground that the documentary didn’t, by exploring what in Armstrong’s early life made him so obsessed with winning.
Also, much as I admire O’Dowd, he could hardly be a less suitable target of the jibes to which Armstrong and his acolytes routinely subjected Walsh, calling him ‘a little troll’.
In a former life as a sports writer, I worked with Walsh. He’s not at all troll-like, but he’s certainly little. O’Dowd, by contrast, must be well over 6ft. So why would anyone call him a little anything?