Writer: John Hodge (screenplay), David Walsh (book)
Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Dustin Hoffman
Running time: 103mins
The lowdown: Lance Armstrong’s rise and fall as the 7 times champion and most notorious cheat of the Tour de France makes for high gear entertainment. Using flash, bang and intelligence, director Stephen Frears and Trainspotting writer John Hodge bring the larger than life story and characters racing onto the screen. Even for those familiar with Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie this is a great ride, with Ben Foster capturing the merciless drive of the hubristic Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd impressive as the journalist who refused to believe the myth.
The full verdict: A word of warning. Those squeamish of needles may need to gaze into their popcorn during chunks of The Program.
Whether injecting banned substance EPO, or water to dilute traces of it, or their own oxygenated blood removed days earlier, Lance Armstrong and his riding team seemed to spend as much time hooked up as in the saddle.
But, this was all part of the Program, the illegal process of doping devised by Dr. Michele Ferrari, a man as brilliant as his ethics were wobbly, memorably realised here by Guilliame Canet.
Frears plays his film as an energetic crime thriller, complete with Scorsese-esque freeze-frames, onscreen titles and flashback alternate point of views to challenge Armstrong’s version of events.
O’Dowd’s David Walsh, the Sunday Times sportswriter on whose book the film is partially based, is the detective who knows no-one is that good, but must find a crack in the cyclists’ code of omertà.
And Armstrong makes a great movie villain, using friendly and not so friendly intimidation (plus a litany of lawsuits courtesy of Lee Pace’s slimy lawyer) to cover his misdeeds, which included cashing the cheques on numerous lucrative sponsorship deals, underwritten by a cameo’ing Dustin Hoffman’s risk assessment expert.
But, resisting the temptation to hatchet job its subject, The Program offers up a balanced view of the man who dashed the dreams of millions. An athlete for whom winning was everything, his conviction helped him beat cancer and raise millions through the Livestrong foundation, but also allowed him to wreck the lives of his challengers, including Floyd Landis (Breaking Bad’s Plemons, on great form).
O’Dowd hungrily tackles the dramatic role of Walsh, uncovering the truth while aware that everyone would prefer to drink the Kool-Aid of Armstrong’s story. Awards consideration is likely, and for Foster a guaranteed cert.
With believable chin provided by SFX maestros Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, Foster becomes Armstrong, nailing his charisma, quick-wittedness, Machiavellian cunning and pitiless desire to win.
He deserves the Oscar nomination for the scene when the cyclist places 3rd despite doping in his return to the Tour de France, the bafflement on his face conveying the confusion that he could be anything other number one.
The final word is given to the real Armstrong, who seems to already be trying to rehabilitate his image. But, his actions depicted here (and in The Armstrong Lie) are what linger.