Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Frears’

Director: Stephen Frears

Screenplay: John Hodge (from the book by David Walsh)

Country: UK / France

Runtime: 103 mins

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Dr Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman)

It’s not about the bike; it’s about the massive doping program

Based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, The Program is a gripping dramatisation of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour De France until those titles were stripped from him in 2012 following revelations about doping.

Walsh meets Armstrong early in his career, before the Texan starts winning races. A knowledgable sports writer, Walsh finds Armstrong to be likeable but judges him not to be capable of winning endurance races. This is an assessment that Armstrong himself receives from a team doctor, being told that his physique doesn’t provide an adequate power-to-weight ratio. When he starts winning races, Walsh is rightly suspicious, but his concerns are not shared by other journalists. Later, when Walsh really starts to rock the boat other journalists worry about their own privileges being taken away. “We’re all drinking soup from the same trough”, one tells him, to which Walsh responds “Didn’t you ever wonder why we have to drink soup from a trough?”

Armstrong undoubtedly suffered when he was being treated for testicular cancer. This is not a condition you would wish on anyone. Someone trying to find some good in Armstrong might point to the huge sums of money his charitable foundation subsequently raised to assist other cancer survivors. But he also used his foundation as a shield behind which to hide his doping activities. These did not just include his own personal drug use. Armstrong was responsible for setting up the entire doping program within the U.S. Postal team. Members of that team also bullied and intimidated other cyclists, as well as journalists, in order to prevent the truth being revealed.

Armstrong’s story is compelling enough, but the film benefits from the casting of Ben Foster in the lead role because he bears a distinct resemblance to the cyclist. It is quite spooky to watch as Foster’s Armstrong repeats to journalists his mantra that he has never failed a drugs test (a speech that he hones by saying it over and over to himself in the mirror). Appearance aside, Foster’s performance is excellent throughout. Chris O’Dowd brings a touch of humour to his portrayal of David Walsh, which provides a welcome contrast to the otherwise serious subject matter. John Hodges’ script and Frears’ direction ensures that the whole thing moves along at a good pace.

One thing that comes across very strongly in The Program is the willingness of so many people to believe in the myth of Armstrong the superhuman cancer survivor. Why do people have such a need to believe in heroes, especially when this leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous? But an even bigger question, perhaps more important than the issue of Armstrong’s cheating, is why so many journalists allowed themselves to be hoodwinked. Even when there were strong reasons to be suspicious of Armstrong many sports writers simply failed to ask the key questions. Of course, this is a failure that extends beyond sports writing, which is why it is so important.

Rating: 4/5

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Philomena is a marvellous film, one which tells an important story, and in doing so arouses laughter, anger, and sadness in roughly equal measure, but never leaving the viewers feeling that their emotions are being toyed with. In a series of flashbacks at the start of the film we learn that Philomena (Judi Dench), as a young Catholic girl in Ireland, conceived a child out of wedlock and was taken in by nuns at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. Along with other girls in a similar situation she has to pay for her stay by working in the laundry. We learn that these vulnerable young women are persuaded by the nuns to sign a contract whereby their children will be given to married couples who are able to give them a good home. In fact, the nuns are making a profit by selling the children to wealthy Americans. The day comes when Philomena’s son is taken, and she is absolutely distraught.

Several decades later, Philomena is still tormented by thoughts of what has become of her child. On several occasions she has been back to the abbey to find information about her son, but despite providing tea and sympathy the nuns always insist they have not been able to trace the child. Philomena’s daughter puts her in touch with Martin Sixmith (Steve Coogan), the journalist and former adviser to the Labour government, who had been forced to resign in controversial circumstances and who is at something of a loose end. Working together, they finally uncover the truth.

Philomena is, in fact, an odd couple road trip movie. Sixsmith is portrayed as slightly snobbish and cynical, and is initially reluctant to assist Philomena because of his disdain for human interest stories (they are for “weak-minded people”). Philomena, on the other hand, is depicted as working-class, rather naive, and with populist tastes (she loves bodice-ripper romances). Coogan, whose comedy career has largely specialised in depicting oddballs and uncomfortable situations, is at his element in his interactions with Dench. At one point, as they are driving along a country road, Philomena proffers a packet of throat lozenges and asks “Would you like a tune?”, to which Sixmith responds “If you hum it, I’ll play it”. She misses the joke entirely, and holds the lozenges closer, repeating her offer. Further along the journey Philomena responds with raucous laughter when Sixmith says something personal and serious. This clash of worlds occurs again later, in an American hotel breakfast bar. Philomena is thrilled at the range of free food on offer and keeps trying to tempt the well-travelled Sixmith, who is not hungry and for whom such culinary experiences are nothing new.

In real life, Coogan is not only an atheist from a Catholic background, but is a victim in the phone-hacking scandal, a witness at the Leveson inquiry, and a campaigner for press regulation. i wonder how much of this was on his mind when he decided to take on the role of a journalist investigating a Catholic scandal. Was he trying to work through his feelings about both Catholicism and journalism? However, Coogan’s own acting is restrained and generous, allowing Judi Dench to come to the fore brilliantly in depicting the tragedy and humour of her own character. Like all road trip movies, the way the two characters develop over the course of the story, and what they learn about themselves and each other, turns out to be as important as the achievement of their goal.

Rating: 10/10