The Program (3 stars)

The Program

TIFF 2015: Ben Foster astonishes as fallen hero Lance Armstrong

If documentary The Armstrong Lie proved that the disgraced cyclist is a tough nut to crack, might an infusion of well-informed speculation illuminate him further? Or is The Program simply an Oscar-friendly platform for one of Hollywood's most promising stars to take on one of America's most spectacular descents from grace?

The latest feature from British director Stephen Frears (whose true-life subjects have stretched all the way from the humble Philomena Lee to the Queen) is driven and thrilling, haring through Armstrong's rise and fall at the speed of a doping cyclist, assisted by zippy editing and a prominent pop-rock soundtrack. Meanwhile, the casting could hardly be bettered with Ben Foster not just an uncanny physical match for Armstrong but nailing his laser-eyed, do-not-cross-me intensity.

Since it's based on David Walsh's 2012 book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong (the screenplay is from regular Danny Boyle collaborator John Hodge), you might expect to see the story of the Irish journalist's long fight to expose the truth about the seemingly superhuman cyclist. However, it sidelines Walsh (played here by Chris O'Dowd) as we are taken into the confidences of Armstrong himself, following his journey from frustrated sportsman to cancer survivor to cheat – as he dopes and presses others to do likewise.

Although the film is unafraid to paint Armstrong as an unrepentant transgressor, it never quite gets to grips with his bully-boy tactics, as he ruthlessly protected the lie. And, while Foster remains mesmerising throughout, at points the character tips over into a pantomime villain; whether he's raging in his mansion or flashing a wide, psychotic smile, it's a film that swings between the heady highs and distasteful lows, seldom lingering on the in-between. It's in these missing shades of grey that the quest for real insight is lost.

The Program delivers an efficient overview of the scandal and builds tension despite the inevitability of the outcome. It's undeniably entertaining but feels like a rather tabloidy treatment of the material, with attempts to humanise or better understand Armstrong rushed over in the race to the next scene.

Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2015. General release from Fri 16 Oct.

The Program

  • 3 stars
  • 2015
  • UK
  • 1h 44min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Stephen Frears
  • Cast: Ben Foster, Chris O'Dowd, Lee Pace, Elaine Cassidy
  • UK release: 16 October 2015

Driven and thrilling look at the rise and fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong, (Foster) and, to a lesser extent, the Irish journalist David Walsh (O'Dowd) who fought to expose the truth about Armstrong's doping. Foster is mesmerising but tips over occasionally into pantomime villain. Undeniably entertaining, if rather tabloidy.