Film review: The Program

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Stephen Frears’ latest biopic has finally pedalled onto screens, and promises an accurate account of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace. Ben Foster, who portrays the shamed sportsman admits every good hero needs an adversary.

In the case of record-breaking American cyclist Lance Armstrong, he played both roles to a tee.

There’s something of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde about Armstrong. On one side we have an adored seven-time Tour de France champion, who survived cancer and engaged in great humanitarian efforts. On the other, a cheat who doped his way to victory, then lied to cover his back.

But, as in all good stories, the baddie got his comeuppance eventually – in the form of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh. After becoming suspicious of Armstrong’s wins, Walsh investigated the athlete and, over the course of years, lifted the stone to reveal the dark underworld of cycling.

Sound like an ideal basis for a film? It did to director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), who adapted Walsh’s award-winning book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit Of Lance Armstrong, for his latest film, The Program.

Ben Foster, who plays Armstrong, said: “I’ve never followed cycling and Lance wasn’t someone I paid much attention to, so there was a lot to learn.

“The more you learn about the subject, the more complicated it becomes. I like research much more than making movies; I enjoy being a student of a subject, and I could keep studying this role for a long time. That said, I’m glad to be away from it.”

Promising an “authentic and accurate account of what happened”, the film has a dream pairing in Foster and Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (of Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd fame), who portrays Walsh.

While Frears didn’t want Armstrong, now 44, to be involved in the making of The Program, Foster contacted the cyclist, only to be rejected – a response he doesn’t “blame the man for at all”.

The former champion made his Tour de France debut in 1993, at the tender age of 21. Little did he know that the race, as well as making his career, would eventually mark its end.

Following a gruelling battle with testicular cancer, he returned to cycling in 1999. Announcing that he “never wants to be that close to losing again”, Armstrong set his sights on winning the Tour de France. With the help of infamous Italian physician Michele Ferrari, he developed the most sophisticated doping program in the history of the sport. This allowed Armstrong and his team-mates to dominate the field – he won the Tour an unprecedented seven times.

Adamant that the ‘victor’ wasn’t clean, Walsh sought to discover the truth, risking his own career in the process. The indefatigable reporter eventually got there, when a select few insiders came forward, helping him expose one of the greatest sporting deceptions of our time.

Foster, like the man he is playing, gives a blisteringly good performance, just minus the deceit.

Rating: 3/5