Film review – The Program (Stephen Frears, 2015)

In the midst of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, Sunday Times journalist David Walsh published his book Seven Deadly Sins. The sole purpose of the book was to blow the cover on Lance Armstrong and reveal the truth about the complex doping program he was involved with during his supremacy in cycling, specifically the Tour de France. Whilst Armstrong was banned for life from cycling in October 2012, two months prior to the release of the book, vindicating David Walsh and the contents of his book.

The Program re-tells this story, with Chris O’Dowd as David Walsh and Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong.

There are narrow margins in its portrayal of Armstrong. Frears gives a fair portrayal of the man, allowing room within the character to justify his actions. It doesn’t shy away from the fact he spearheaded this complex program of systematic doping, on a level so widespread that USADA (U.S. Anti-doping Agency) referred to it as “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen“. However, to fully represent him, it must also be shown that he used a significant amount of his own time alongside the money earned to aide cancer research. The Program just about lands perfectly in the middle without feeling like it is sitting on the fence, only tipping into an out-and-out negative portrayal when he loses sight of his goal to beat cancer and instead gets addicted to winning at all costs.

When a massive scandal such as this is at the forefront of the public eye, it is easy to forget how successful and inspiring Lance Armstong was for both cyclists and cancer sufferers. It must be remembered that Lance Armstrong started doping, like most cyclists, because he couldn’t win a race without it. In this version of events, he was driven by the fact that doping was already widespread in the sport when he first considered it. It doesn’t strike me that Spears was condoning his actions; he wasn’t the first, nor was he the last. He was simply the most successful.

In hindsight, it was a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. Lance Armstrong won medals and tournaments every season, cancer research programs gained a lot of money and the profile of the sport was raised due to the success story playing out in the public’s eye. The only real losers were the honest cyclists who were unable to compete on the same level.

In time, this film won’t prove to be the definitive biopic on this subject, but with the media pursuit of truth as the approach it offers a unique angle on the situation. One wonders whether its success wasn’t hindered somewhat by the similarly-themed Spotlight, which was busy on the festival circuit at the same time as this. Spotlight may have not been everyone’s favoured choice for the Best Picture Academy Award in January, but it was certainly a more powerful film than The Program.

Film review – St. Vincent (Ted Melfi, 2014)

Note: This is a review that is full of spoilers. If you are yet to see the film then I suggest you don’t read on.

St Vincent is an indie film that charts a small-town tale of a young boy Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and their neighbour Vincent (Bill Murray), as they compete with their various individual struggles. Maggie is going through a divorce with her husband and has had to move away and start a new job to support herself and her son. Oliver is being bullied at his new school and is finding his way in a new neighbourhood without a father-figure (or indeed mother-figure) to guide him. Vince is an unlikely companion to Oliver, as he battles addictions to gambling and alcoholism.

Whilst Murray isn’t playing out of his comfort zone as a grumpy old man who is as sarcastic as he is rude, seeing him re-tread old ground is hardly a painful experience. Indeed, it’s exactly what we love him for and why he has been so successful in his career. It’s a little like when a band you love plays your favourite song as the encore – everyone is much older that the first time it came around but we all play along as it’s something we love experiencing.

There are some pretty unforgiveable plot holes in the film that really let it down and make it impossible to enjoy wholeheartedly. Whilst Naomi Watts is dong a fantastic job as the heavily pregnant dancer and “lady of the night”, it seems unfathomable that she’d have kept the baby and her jobs for so long. Whilst her being pregnant served as a humorous point for some good physical comedy, it was at the expense of the realistic façade Melfi had worked so hard to create.

It was confusing trying to rationalize Vince’s actions when they were eventually revealed to be revolving around keeping his wife in such an expensive care home. She has Alzheimer’s, which is a terrible condition, but since he wasn’t working and didn’t have any other responsibilities (children are never mentioned), if he truly loved his wife maybe he could have kept her at home instead of spending all his time with a Russian sex worker.

The most irrational decision was the choice of Maggie to palm off her son to a neighbour she knows only through arguments. It is convenient for both Maggie as a character and also as a key plot point around which to bend the storyline, but it would never happen. She also seems too quick and easy with her money, even though she is evidently struggling to make ends meet. Any of Vince’s personality traits would have set alarm bells ringing for a single mother, yet she chooses to ignore them all and employ him as a babysitter, essentially to serve the plot.

I also find it unlikely that the divorce would have been settled with joint custody of the child, when the evidence was clearly stacked against Maggie. If her husband was creating an equally bad environment for Oliver, then he would surely have gone into a foster home since neither parent was fit to care for their own child.

I forced myself to see past these flaws in order to enjoy the film, but a truly great film wouldn’t have asked so much of its audience.

St Vincent is out now at cinemas in the UK.