The Program film review - Frears fails to lance cycling's infamous poster boy

The biopic of shamed sportsman Lance Armstrong shows Lance the Survivor, Lance the Winner and Lance the Cheat - but doesn’t get as far as Lance the Loser

Ben Foster in The Program. (Studio Canal)

Ben Foster in The Program. (Studio Canal)

You get the impression that Lance Armstrong would soon rather forget his cycling career, given the spate of documentaries which were made in the aftermath of his confession that, despite previous denials, he had built his career on a sophisticated program of performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2013’s The Armstrong Lie, Lance sat down with filmmaker Alex Gibney, hours after that Oprah Winfrey interview, to tell some, but not all - unfair, perhaps, given Gibney had to shelve three years of work dedicated to painting the cyclist as a comeback king, the year before. Last year’s Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story attempted to expand upon the revelations which came spilling out after the United States Anti-Doping Assocation (USADA) concluded that he had headed up “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”

First came the documentaries: now comes the glossy fiction. Stephen Frears’ The Program stars Ben Foster as Armstrong on fine, semi-skeletal, fiery-eyed form. You’re almost afraid of him as he pulls up alongside a cyclist who dared to speak out about doping, mid-race, and gently lays a hand upon his back, telling him to watch his step; you feel as if, mentally, he’s shoved his fellow competitor into a hedge at the roadside. Foster’s choice to use performance-enhancing drugs as he cycled the routes of the Tour de France to absorb Armstrong’s essence, if you will, is questionable, but there is no doubt that his electrifying performance is the steroid-infused lifeblood of the film.

The Program is based upon Seven Deadly Sins, the book by The Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, which details the writer’s pursuit of Armstrong’s doping long before any formal allegations were out in the open. As such, Walsh plays a large part in the film in the form of Chris O’Dowd who, as with Calvary, can do well in a serious role, even if he’s given a weak script and, by the end of the film, very little to do - odd when Walsh and Armstrong’s early encounters appear to be framed as heading towards a very solid conclusion.

What Frears does well is to show what the documentaries couldn’t: the meetings between Armstrong and his trainer Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet); the injections of steroids and application of adrenaline patches; the slow, crazed belief that grows inside Armstrong’s mind as he starts to believe his own lies.

The seemingly untouchable Armstrong paints a dark shadow across anyone who dares to question his greatness. Walsh is shunned by his journalist friends; his masseuse works, terrified in her complicity, to dispose of the evidence inside empty drinks cans; Armstrong’s teammate Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) is left to fend for himself after getting caught out by the anti-doping squad. But while the film takes great care to show Lance the cancer survivor, the Tour de France winner and, yes, the cheat, Frears fails to show us what Armstrong had coming: we never get to see him squirm.

The film wraps up with a brief epilogue, glancing over The Sunday Times’ success in court after Armstrong’s denials fell apart, and concludes with the cyclist being stripped of his seven Tour victories. But Frears’ sting lacks venom: we’re not given a chance to see the man who never loses truly lose it all.