3.5 stars
“I have never tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.”

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, as Lance Armstrong found when he went from cancer survivor to seven times winner of the Tour De France.
He also found plenty of people willing to let that lie fly: explicitly in the case of Dr Michele Ferrari, or implicitly in the case of cycling fans the world over who simply wanted to believe that Armstrong could do what he did.

But he couldn't. And didn't. This is that story.

Directed with considerable panache by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), The Program charts Armstrong's meteoric rise from a twenty-one year old outsider to cycling royalty, a house-hold name and global brand. Determined to win the TDF, he enlisted the help of Ferrari – the 'Pope of Dope', a veritable Dr Frankenstein – and together they did whatever it took to get Armstrong and his team over the line. The cyclist’s formidable marketing skills, good looks, charm and eloquence ensured they stayed there.

While other media looked on, journalist David Walsh (Chris O'Dowd – The Sapphires) began hounding Armstrong shortly after his phenomenal return to cycling, a performance that looked too good to be true. Which it was. For seven years he needled where others feared to look, and with good cause; Armstrong controlled access, he controlled the press, he controlled the Tour. He was a formidable, frightening personality. But as with all houses made from card, eventually his began to fall.

“He's recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman!”

Based on Walsh's book, screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting, Trance) has crafted a gripping narrative that charts the rise and rise of a cheat. He's served well by Frears who gives The Program a gritty resonance that captures the high and lows, anxiety and exhilaration, the mud and cobbles, blood, sweat and tears that is the Tour De France. A terrific soundtrack keeps a pulsing rhythm. While there are no new revelations not already covered in depth by Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie, or Oprah, Frears ties it all together in a neat, zippy package.

He in turn is served well by Ben Foster (The Messenger) who goes full-Streep, transforming himself to become Armstrong. Beyond an uncanny physical resemblance, Foster is simply sensational as he embodies every tick and nuance of the effortlessly charming, passive-agressive sociopath. So convincing is he that it's easy to forget that this is drama, that he is an actor.

The Program also goes some way to reconciling the dichotomy of a man who, on one hand, worked tirelessly for his charity yet on the other, was a bullying drug cheat. Was that his motivation, to raise money and profile for the LiveStrong Foundation? Probably not, it was probably base ego, although Frears concedes we'll never truly know. For if the elusive Armstrong was to say anything, anything at all, who would believe him?

Although the film sucker-punches its way to a too-sudden close, one that, in the end, doesn't fully realise the resonant set-up, The Program is a compelling account of the man who brought cycling to the world, then set fire to it in the ultimate act of hubris.


Previewed at The QT Theatre, Sydney on 9 November 2015

Ben Foster
Chris O’Dowd
Guilliame Canet
Jesse Plemons

Stephen Frears

John Hodge

UK / France


103 minutes

November 26, 2015
The Program (2015) on IMDb
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