Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Program (2015) - Movie Review in the year, by sheer luck, I happened to be in the same room as my uncle while he was watching a documentary on Netflix. That doco was Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, a film that looked at the issue of steroid use in professional wrestling and dare to ask if maybe, just maybe, the world was overreacting to performance enhancement just a bit. Since sitting through that, I have been rather dubious about today’s film concerning the infamous Lance Armstrong drug scandal. The reason for that being that, unlike the rest of the world, I don’t see how demonizing his character helps anyone. As such, I am seriously worried about this film devolving into a lot of beating down on an easy target and acting like a slightly more sophisticated Mr. Mackey about how drugs are bad, mkay? Well, there’s only one way to find out if my rather pessimistic expectations are met, and bear in mind that these are even greater than usual.

The plot: Cyclist Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster), after nearly succumbing to testicular cancer, is determined to make sure he doesn’t ever lose again. As a result, he seeks the aid of sporting physician Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) who puts him and the rest of his team on a performance enhancement regimen. As Lance’s winning streak in the Tour de France increases, and it looks like no-one can touch him for first place, journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) suspects that he may not be winning in the most strictly legal manner. He encounters a lot of red tape and intense scepticism from both his colleagues and his bosses, but he is determined to find out the truth.

Foster is outstanding as Armstrong, portraying his determination, arrogance and repentance superbly, even if the transition between those three isn’t the best handled. O’Dowd almost matches Foster in terms of showing a drive to succeed, not to mention intense passion both in his performance and his character’s ideals. Canet, considering he’s been given what is essentially a mad scientist, plays it as such only without going too overblown as to reduce credibility… that shouldn’t be possible. Jesse Plemons, who is quickly becoming today’s cinematic Waldo in terms of how suddenly he appears in films, gives another good performance here as Landis. Lee Pace, who I’m definitely glad is getting more mainstream attention in films now, does really well as the almost mob enforcer agent Stapleton.

Writer John Hodge, whose collaborations with Danny Boyle such as Trainspotting need no introduction, has a real knack for never taking sides when it comes to conflicting characters. Whether it’s misanthropic drug users, misanthropic teens on vacation, or just misanthropes in general (yeah, he has a thing for writing humans who hate all other humans), he never paints anyone directly as the hero or the villain; he just presents sides and lets the audience take the reins. He’s pretty much the Rorschach test of screenwriters and, thankfully, this film isn’t an exception to that. He presents the justification for why Armstrong went with the program to begin with as well as why Walsh would want him brought down. Now, as is usually the case in terms of biopics, it’s important to understand the biases that went into the final product; namely, what primary source is being used. In this case, it’s Walsh’s tell-all book about his journey to uncover the truth about Armstrong that gets the big ‘Based On’ credit. However, this film doesn’t whole-heartedly take his side and show him as the white knight trying to save cycling, nor does it show Armstrong entirely as someone who is willing to do anything to win; they are both and they are neither.

The big doping scandal is much like any other case involving the darker side of a public figure: There are conflicting perspectives on the merits of the people involved. This is why Hodge’s approach is so important, not just for the people involved in the doping conspiracy but for the conspiracy itself as well. It’s a pretty not-well-kept secret that performance enhancement exists in many realms of professional sport and both its prevalence and the actions made to carry it out end up creating some morally grey questions. Not that the film ever tries to outright answer whether doping is right or wrong, instead focusing on Armstrong’s image as the catalyst for why it got revealed at all. Everyone is doing it but, because he was so high-profile and ended up crossing so many people, it was him out of the entire circuit that got taken down.

This also leads to a question that, as always, I can only give my perspective on because it’s that ambiguous a point: Does the revelation that Armstrong was a cheat completely negate his image? The film itself raises this question as well, particularly when it comes to his cancer research foundation. Without a doubt, the strongest point of the entire film is when he’s in the hospital and meets a patient in his bed; barely any words are spoken, and yet it hits the hardest out of the entire film’s running time. Add to this the woman who spoke with him at the book signing and extolled how much of a personal inspiration he was, and that knee-jerk betrayal starts to get a little cloudy. Again, not saying outright that people don’t have a right to feel said betrayal; just that maybe one shouldn’t completely erase the other.

All in all, this managed to meet my expectations in the best way possible, taking a broader and far less biased look at the Armstrong case than I feared. The acting is excellent, if not the best transitioned, the direction is stellar, the soundtrack works really well where it’s used and the writing presents both sides of the conflict as even-handedly as possible, easily the best approach when dealing with a topic like this. Even if you only have a passing interest in Armstrong, especially now after all that’s happened, this is most assuredly one to check out.

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