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Review: The Program (TIFF 2015)

The Program (TIFF 2015)
09.17.2015
4 10

PLOT: Sports journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) tries to expose Lance Armstrong's (Ben Foster) doping scheme over the course of his phenomenally successful reign as the world's most popular athlete.

REVIEW: About forty minutes into THE PROGRAM, a guy who I'm pretty sure (like 99.9%) is Michael G. Wilson shows up as Lance Armstrong's cancer doctor. Wilson is one of the 007 producers, having run the franchise for decades. If indeed it was Wilson, he must have felt right at home on the set as Ben Foster plays Lance Armstrong like a Bond villain – only more evil.

Perhaps given the very real sense of betrayal his legions of fans still feel, a somewhat sympathetic Lance Armstrong biopic was probably never in the cards. That said, Stephen Frears' docu-drama really comes off like a hack-job, with it racing through Armstrong's initial success and cancer battle to tackle his doping scheme and the Omerta-like code of silence he enforces among the biking elite. Foster, who one could never call a subtle actor, is given free reign here, playing Armstrong as a Don Corleone-esque figure, while occasionally flying in to wild rages that would make Al Pacino circa-REVOLUTION wince in how over-the-top they are.

While he gets carried-away, Foster shouldn't shoulder the blame for THE PROGRAM. With a screenplay by John Hodge (TRAINSPOTTING, SHALLOW GRAVE) and Stephen Frears coming-off PHILOMENA, this should have been excellent but THE PROGRAM is executed so clumsily that it's already become the unintentional comedy hit of this year's TIFF.

Narratively this is all-over-the-place, with Dowd's journalist only intermittently popping-up to express his suspicions at Armstrong's reign of success. The focus is kept on Armstrong, and indeed there's a fascinating film to be made about the man – only this isn't it. By painting him as a two-dimensional villain, Frears has denied himself the chance to make would could have been a remarkable character study.

Foster's also not the only one who's over the top. Guillaume Canet's part as Armstrong's doping doctor is problematic in that it's also quite absurd, with the caveat being that the real guy (as shown in Alex Gibney's far-superior THE ARMSTRONG LIE) was a bit of a clown so perhaps this is accurate. For his part Dowd is very earnest, but he's denied much screen-time despite his prominent billing. Dustin Hoffman also pops up for an extended cameo as an insurence investigator, and it's too minor a part to really have much of an effect. Jesse Plemons, who's having a great year with BLACK MASS and season two of FARGO on the way doesn't get much leeway to make his Floyd Landis an appealing character, while Lee Pace is absolutely venal as Armstrong's agent. The editing also seems quite compromised, with Armstrong's wife almost completely absent from the film and an ending that's stunningly (and hilariously) abrupt.

The fact is – with the wide range of programming the Toronto International Film Festival is always bound to have a few disasters, and this year the big flop seems to be THE PROGRAM. It's both puzzling and sad that it came together so poorly, but it really is a truly clumsy, simplistic portrait of an extremely complicated man. This is only worth seeing for comedic value.

Source: JoBlo.com

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