The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Program

Is there anyone left who still admires Lance Armstrong? The seven-time Tour de France winner was an American hero until it was revealed that he not only used performance enhancing drugs but also shamelessly lied to everyone (including Oprah!) about it. Suddenly, he was a pariah. The Program – not to be confused with the 1993 football drama of the same name – looks at Armstrong's dark dealings. While perhaps not as deep as it could have been, the movie is nonetheless a compelling examination of an unrepentant cheater.

Ben Foster (looking eerily like the real guy) portrays Armstrong. We meet him amid some professional and personal struggles: he's losing races and has been diagnosed with testicular cancer. These things hurt his career, but he's got a plan to get back on track. It involves getting on the drug program of ethically-challenged Italian physician Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and forming his own charity, Livestrong, to, in part, sell a positive image of himself to the public. Armstrong starts doping, sees a radical improvement in his performance, becomes a multi-time champion, and earns the love of a nation. His teammates, including Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons), get started on the doping program, too. Meanwhile, Sunday Times reporter David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd) thinks that Armstrong's sudden burst of success is suspicious and begins investigating. The trail leads him to a risk insurer named Bob Hamman (Dustin Hoffman), who has his own personal issues with the cyclist.

The Program leaves a lot of things about Armstrong's life out. Everything before he starts doping is covered, montage-style, in the film's first twenty minutes. His marriage and family are barely mentioned, while his relationship to singer Sheryl Crow is ignored altogether. Other things of importance are addressed hastily and then quickly moved past. To say that this is a definitive portrait of Lance Armstrong would be inaccurate. So much more could have been included that would have completed the psychological profile the movie attempts to assemble.

Yet even with that caveat, director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting) pull off a captivating look at how Armstrong and Ferrari ran the doping program and how it all came crashing down. (The specifics of how the program worked – especially the methods used to beat drug tests – are riveting.) Under their guidance, The Program doesn't portray Armstrong as flawed, or as someone who made a mistake by getting caught up in something bigger than he was. Instead, it depicts him as an almost pathological liar, a guy driven by his desire to win at any cost, even one that is unethical or illegal. His actions in the story feel almost sinister, especially when he tries to divert suspicion away from himself by finger-pointing at others. The movie also explores how David Walsh was smart enough to realize that the implications of Armstrong's actions went beyond the world of professional cycling; they impacted everyone who was inspired by Lance because of his battle with cancer.

Ben Foster is outstanding in the lead role, projecting the kind of “I don't care about anybody but myself” mentality that surely must have guided Armstrong. He makes us want to continue the journey, even when we actively dislike the man he's playing. Foster gets at the notion that Armstrong recognized having a strong public image was crucial to hiding his dishonesty. If everyone loved him, they'd be less inclined to look at the things that didn't add up. Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) is also strong as Floyd Landis, who is far enough into the doping program himself to give him second thoughts about blowing the whistle on his teammate.

Again, The Program chooses to focus on one specific part of Lance Armstrong's career, as opposed to giving us the whole range of it. There's probably a great film to be made from looking at his life in its totality. But as a specially-focused story, it works quite well, fascinatingly taking us into the mind of a bad guy who fooled everyone into thinking he was a good guy so that he could fraudulently call himself a champion.

( out of four)

The Program is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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