The Program Review

Sports biopics are a godsend to Hollywood. The story is already written for them, and it usually fits the Classic Hollywood Narrative, where the plucky underdog overcomes the obstacles to become the best in the world at his or her chosen sport. However, with the case of Lance Armstrong, since there is a large addendum to the story, how would the filmmakers make a plucky underdog story out of a cheat? Read on, and you will see.

The Program stars Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons and Denis Menochet and is directed by Stephen Frears. The Program, based on the journalistic investigation by David Walsh (O’Dowd) follows Lance Armstrong (Foster) through his trials surrounding his illegitimate win of the Tour De France.

Stephen Frears has a background in biopic films. His biggest two films (which were always credited in the trailer for The Program) were The Queen and Philomena, so the man obviously knows how to craft a film around the true facts of a story. However, while his former two films were of merit and sometimes incredibly engaging, The Program just feels drab in comparison.

Talking with people about the film, some thought that because we all know how The Program would end that it spoils the film. I would disagree, for example, we all knew how Zero Dark Thirty would finish, but director Kathryn Bigelow managed to create a film so engaging we almost forgot that the film would end how it would. Unfortunately, Frears doesn’t ever seem to find that balance, where we forget how the events play out, leaving the film to just plod along until it ends rather flatly. I even fell asleep for a few minutes around the midway mark, just because I was so un-engaged by the story.

The standout of the film is Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong. As the film tracks Armstrong’s initial win, then his battle with testicular cancer and then his triumphant return, Foster’s body get’s transformed until he is almost unrecognisable, first showing the brutal challenge of chemotherapy and then the harsh training that Armstrong put himself through to go back and win the Tour. Foster also exudes the charm and charisma that Armstrong projected, which somehow manages you to almost be on his side, despite him cheating to win the races.

Foster however is the only engaging actor, with everyone else seeming incredibly bland. I was looking forward to seeing Chris O’Dowd shake off the “Nice Comedy Guy” role that he seemed to have been typecast in and into a journalist who was disgusted at Armstrong’s cheating (like the trailer showed), but instead he just came across as very disinterested in the role.

There are some great shots in the film. Foster rides his bike through the French countryside, and the camera just follows him from behind as he rides for a good two to three minutes at a time, winding round the hairpin mountain passes and climbing the immense hills that litter the Tour. Coupled with the panoramic countryside surroundings, it’s sometimes a very good-looking film.

The Program uses a lot of stock footage, seamlessly merging it with the endless shots of Foster on his bike, knitting together a film that seems to be half documentary and half biopic. However, there are a few scenes, such as Armstrong confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show or certain press conferences, where Foster just repeats Armstrong’s words and reactions verbatim, which seems odd since Frears is okay with using footage of Armstrong earlier during the races.

In conclusion, The Program just feels like a bog standard, paint-by-numbers biopic. Maybe check it out if you’re an enthusiastic biker or you’re interested in Lance Armstrong, but to everyone else, spend your money elsewhere.

Score: 5/10 Time to be “on yer bike” The Program, you’re not good enough to stick around.

(I’m immensely sorry for including that pun, but it really does fit the film.)

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Legend Review

The Kray twins have always been a source of media attention. Several books, television shows and even musicals have documented the infamous duos lives when they single-handedly ruled the backstreets of London. The first film about the Krays was all the way back in 1990 and starred Spandau Ballet brothers Gary and Martin Kemp. 25 years later, a new biopic about the twins arrives, this time called Legend.

Legend stars Tom Hardy (twice!), Emily Browning, David Thewlis and Christopher Eccleston and is directed by Brian Helgeland. The film follows both Ronnie and Reggie Kray (both played by Hardy), their rise through the criminal underworld and their eventual demise.

The standout of the film is the dual performance by Tom Hardy. The man is an acting powerhouse, and he manages to give both twins character. Their looks seem to be the only thing that is remotely similar as each twin has a different speech pattern, mannerisms and ways of holding themselves when speaking or being spoke to. It’s amazing to watch and it really does feel like it’s just two different actors rather than one man. Praise must also be given to Emily Browning as Reggie’s wife Frances. Browning’s whole performance is of a fragile and nervous woman who is constantly at her breaking point, trying to cope with her lying and violent husband. While this might have got stale very quickly, I thought it added more weight to her constant empty threats of leaving Reggie, as you could tell she would never go through with it for fear of being alone or what he would do. Browning also narrates the film, but I wasn’t convinced by it. Browning doesn’t sound interested or invested in the story (although she’s not as bad as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner) and it feels more like narration for the sake of it.

The film focuses on Frances and Reggie’s romance and marriage, which seems an odd choice for a film about brutal and notorious gangsters. While we do get the odd scene of violence (including my favourite, a fight in a pub that stars knuckle dusters and hammers) the film just keeps switching back to Reggie and Frances’ relationship troubles. It starts to feel less about the Krays and more to do with what a dysfunctional and abusive relationship looks like between a violent gangster and a quiet and shy drug addict.

Being set in the 1960s, the soundtrack is excellent. Recognisible and catchy songs such as Green Onions by Booker T and the Mg’s or I’m Into Something Good by Herman’s Hermits make Legend a pleasure to listen to. I can’t think of a gangster film that has reveled so much in it’s iconic music, but Legend has a string of songs that slip in and out of the film perfectly. The points in the film when the Krays are driving a flashy car, wearing suits fit for a king and listening to a crooner on the radio, those are the parts that stick with me from the film.

Legend has its flaws. As a biopic the film has to hit certain historical points, but the film doesn’t feel coherent at all. Several of the scenes could have been jumbled up and put at opposite ends of the film and it probably would have looked the same plot-wise. It’s less of a story and more a collection of events, each one disconnected from the last. This fluctuation in narrative ties in with another problem I had with the film, which was the ending. I won’t spoil the ending of the film (even though the true story is readily available to anyone with access to a library or the internet) but the film feels like it drags on for the last ten minutes so that it can tell us the final part of the Krays story instead of stopping at a more natural conclusion for the love-focused narrative of the film.

The film also tries to make jokes about Ronnie Kray’s sexuality, which felt a bit off-kilter to me. Early on in the film Ronnie bluntly states that he is gay (which is historically inaccurate but that’s besides the point I’m making). The film continues with these outbursts of his sexuality, and the jokes it tries to make about it feel a bit forced and more of a mockery of Ronnie’s sexuality rather than Ronnie himself.

In summary, Legend looks and sounds great, but the lack of cohesion in it’s narrative and story telling leaves it being nothing but superficial. If you like music from the 1960s or you’re a fan of Tom Hardy then it’s a definite watch.

Score: 7/10 A lot of style making up for very little substance.