The Program is a film with go-faster stripes. Its opening credits sell the exhilaration and freedom of cycling and the danger and achievement of the Tour de France. Its closing roll, with “where are they now?” captions, prods and informs until the final sentence. It powers on, visually dynamic and, like its compelling antihero, doesn’t have an inch of fat on it.
Virtually everybody knows the name Lance Armstrong: cancer survivor and Tour de France champion, inspirational author and charity activist, American idol and massive cheat. Plenty of us read his books and felt awe at his journey, from facing death to reaching glory, and found the pesky allegations that he was taking drugs to be mealy mouthed fairy tale-wrecking in a too-cynical age. And then, of course, they were right.
The Program assumes you know this and takes you inside the process — from the moment the young Lance (Ben Foster) sees he has to cheat to triumph, to the cosseted champion eventually undone by his own hubris. And it is fascinating. Armstrong is obsessed by the desire to win, to turn his team — The United States Postal Service — into a ‘Blue Train’ of cyclists, blitzing the opposition. By any means necessary. He meets with unscrupulous Italian medic Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), who dismisses him as the wrong body shape, but enlists him on his ‘program’ when Armstrong returns, light and sinewy, after chemotherapy. These scenes, as Armstrong is inducted into Ferrari’s methods, tuned up like a machine, are a clinic in clever exposition, showing us the process and quietly asking where we would draw the line — even if Canet, having rather a lot of fun, proves French actors can match English or Americans for outrageous Italian accents.
Along Lance’s journey, from survivor to record-breaker, cycling is quietly damned and the media, too — as the authorities and newspapers largely look the other way, happy to sell a dream to the public. All, as presented here anyway, except *Sunday Times *journalist David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), who nips at the heels of the arrogant Texan, infuriated by how he and his like are destroying the sport he loves. This is a superbly cast and performed picture — each tiny bit-player has personality — though obviously the tour-de-force of the Tour de France tragedy is Foster, who is mesmeric, frighteningly committed and uncannily like Armstrong. To the point that it’s hard to see, however much you strain, the segues between archive and freshly filmed footage. His Armstrong is something of a monster, true, but there are moments of self-doubt and questioning and some genuine compassion — the cancer ward visit is a grace note — that Foster sells completely. O’Dowd, though requiring much less physical transformation, is superb as someone just as driven in his own way: desperate for the truth. Stephen Frears quietly does his thing, orchestrating it all — from John Hodge’s deft script — and cinematographer Danny Cohen is all Dutch angles and energy, putting us on the bike and inside the head space of the world’s greatest... cheat.