BFI London Film Festival: The Program

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The Program
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Denis Ménochet and Dustin Hoffman

by Ruth Thomson

Stephen Frears what are you playing at??!! The meteoric rise of cancer conquering cyclist Lance Armstrong and his subsequent spectacular fall from grace, which culminated in his confession to Oprah Winfrey that he had indeed been using banned substances throughout his yellow jersey clad career, is a fascinating story. As such it made for a fascinating documentary two years ago: Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie. And as such it should have made for a great movie. But sadly in Frear’s hands it doesn’t.

Granted it’s a meaty story, but there are an awful lot of shortcuts – all the lead characters are introduced in the opening moments with their names splashed across the screen, Lance (Ben Foster) is diagnosed with, and overcomes, testicular cancer in about a minute and a half. He meets and marries his wife in under a minute. This hardly makes for a well-developed character. But the real problem is Foster’s central performance. In fact it’s not just his performance (which has more to commend it as the film progresses), it’s the casting. The real Armstrong pushed himself beyond the realms of physical endurance, pumped himself full of drugs, lied repeatedly to those around him and his millions of global fans, threatened and intimidated his friends and colleagues, dated rock stars and hung out with presidents. All at the same time as setting himself up as the saviour of global cancer awareness. I think it’s safe to say that during all of this, he had a fair old amount of charisma. Unfortunately this is not embodied in Ben Foster who lacks leading man appeal and just doesn’t seem to have enough in him to fill such a big character. Granted I may be being slightly heightist – surely Lance Armstrong isn’t that short?!

Some other performances make a little more impact – Jesse Plemons as fellow cyclist Floyd Landis who ultimately spoke out against Armstrong, and Chris O’Dowd as the journalist David Walsh who put his career on the line by doggedly exposing the truth. Fortunately Walsh is Irish, so O’Dowd can wholeheartedly embrace basically being himself – he does it so well!

If you want to find out about Lance Armstrong, watch the documentary. And if you want to make a biopic about him, cast Michael Fassbender.

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