Reviews

Movie reviews: The Program, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and The 33

Director Stephen Frears paints a riveting picture of how Lance Armstrong lied, cheated and bullied his way to the top

"We transformed your lousy little Eurosport into a global brand," spits American cycling team manager Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace). The sneer is aimed at an anti-doping official who has the temerity to suggest that Lance Armstrong's test results are not as clean as they should be.

The line is why The Program (NC16, 104 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4.5/5 stars) is not just this year's best movie based on actual events, but also ranks with the year's top films in any genre.

Stapleton's contempt for the official doesn't just show the kind of bullies he and Armstrong could be, but also reveals the imbalance of power between athletes and the bodies that struggle to govern them. Not only that, you also get an idea of how the Tour de France became so riddled with money-politics that only cheaters could win.

And, that slur - "Eurosport" - is a wonderful bit of comedic swearing.

Director Stephen Frears is economical, an artist who in a few strokes shows how a person can shape organisations and how those organisations, in turn, can shape members.

Whether it's the Catholic Church in Ireland dealing with past abuses (Philomena, 2013), the House of Windsor's culture shock in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death (The Queen, 2006), or doping at the Tour de France, Frears cuts recent history down to a core that is funny, honest and human.

As the title suggests, the story is the "how" of doping, rather than an Armstrong biopic. Armstrong (Ben Foster) and Stapleton were key players, but they were part of a cabal that included shady doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) and Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons). Landis was a former teammate whose revelations would shatter the myth that Armstrong had crafted about himself, helped by press corps eager to peddle the hype if it sold more copies.

The doping sessions are shot in a thrilling heist-movie style - the blood bags, syringes and the cat-and-mouse game played with inspectors.

In case anyone thought winning involved popping a few pills, scenes here lay bare the medical reality. Armstrong's team bus, on race days, resembled a hospital emergency room.

The script by John Hodge (Trance, 2013) has plenty of dramatic conflict built in because of the battles between Armstrong and crusading sports writer David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd), not a surprise as the film is adapted from Walsh's book, L.A. Confidential.

Foster's Armstrong is a magnetic presence, a character of implacable ambition he wears like a Halloween mask. The cyclist won the Tour de France seven straight times, from 1999 to 2005. Foster creates cinema's best villain in ages, a man who was a thug when he was on top and, after the fall, saw himself as a victim.

For another true story turned into a screenplay, there is The 33 (PG, 126 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars), about the Chilean miners who in 2010 were trapped 700m underground for more than two months.

Starring a who's who of actors of Hispanic descent (Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro) and a few who are not (Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne) and helmed by Mexico-born Patricia Riggen, the movie is a diary of events taking place above and below ground.

Production design is superb - the size of the tunnels and how deep they are are shown in a way that is both realistic and awe-inspiring. That sense of scale is crucial for understanding how the caverns caved in, why 33 of them were not immediately crushed and why it took so long to save the trapped miners.

For commercial reasons, the film-makers opted to have everyone speak English with a South American accent. It's a move worthy of a sitcom, not a cinematic feature, and the film pays a price - it distances the audience from the story. The sense of danger ebbs, not helped by how the film tries hard to make everyone, from the politicians downwards, look like the good guys.

In the completely fictional world of Panem, President Snow and his Cabinet also fight for their lives as rebels, led by symbolic leader Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), close in around him.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (PG13, 136 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) concludes the four-part saga by going full military.

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), rescued from Snow's prison, remains unstable in loyalty, but Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and others are by Katniss' side as the squad battles booby traps and betrayals.

Donald Sutherland's unctuously sinister Snow is a delight; the character's confidence is a pleasant contrast to the neuroticism stirring between Katniss, Gale and Peeta.

None of the film-makers in the series has worked out how to marry its smaller concerns about love and family with its larger themes of propaganda and dying for a cause. Katniss' personal concerns have always felt trivial next to the larger social issues. As shells explode and people perish, how much one person cares for another is a matter best left for another time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'The Program a tour de force'. Print Edition | Subscribe