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 – Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2016)

There are obvious paths to go down to tell a story about victims of child abuse. This film eschews the story of the individuals who have suffered the abuse, instead concentrating on the journalistic team that fought hard to uncovered the abuse. It deliberately attempts to portray just how difficult it was to reveal the truth about something when nobody wants to listen and everybody involved is trying to cover up what has happened. It is an effective but devastating success.

The title of the film is taken from an investigative journalistic unit that tackles stories it deems of necessary interest to the readers of The Boston Globe. In 2002 it published an exposé on Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area, offering evidence of not only child molestation and rape, but also of the systemic cover-up of the evidence by the church. The truths they found were horrific in both nature and magnitude.

Whilst the movie is truly an ensemble piece, there are three wonderfully nuanced performances that help make this film so effective.

The first comes from Stanley Tucci as the attorney Mitchell Garabedian. Tucci is a really special actor and he’s in fine form here. Garabedian has represented innumerable victims of the abuse and each time has been unable to affect change, with critical documents being suppressed by the church. Reminiscent of his role in Margin Call as Eric Dale, he is a man with knowledge of the wider secret dying for those around him to find out what’s truly going on.

A smaller but memorable turn comes from Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Based on a real person going by the same name, he makes the most of his limited screen time when he provides a harrowing monologue the first time he meets the Spotlight team. A frustrated picture of a man that likely represents the emotions felt by each and every survivor.

The finest performance, however, is from Michael Keaton as the Chief Editor of Spotlight, Walter “Bobby” Robinson. Throughout the story Bobby is a man wrestling with his conscience. He knows that to make the story as effective as possible he needs to wait for all the facts to be in place and make a thorough, damning article that cannot be ignored. However, doing this means sitting on the information whilst the abuse continues in the city. Late in the picture when he finds out he was actually tipped off about the scandal twenty years previously, he must conclude that he is finally bringing justice to the city despite potentially having the power to prevent generations of systemic abuse. Keaton nails it, reminding us all once again how great it is to have him back on the big screen in a role of substance.

I’m surprised Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams have been selected for an Oscar nomination ahead of those they share the screen with. Fine actors though they are, it must have been a tough call to select two from a long list of solid performances. Ruffalo seemed to be holding back slightly, though that was perhaps a deliberate choice I didn’t pick up on fully.

It is rare that a whole audience is left in absolute silence at the end of a screening, but even on a busy Saturday afternoon there didn’t seem to be anyone that felt anything other than stunned. The reason for this was a devastating list of all the locations they have uncovered scandals in since the publishing of the initial article in 2002, firstly in the USA, then globally.

For this reason the film is now serving the same purpose as the original article: to shine a spotlight on a diabolical scandal that should have been eradicated decades ago. It is possibly the most important film you will see this year.