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As Lance Armstrong, Ben Foster puts in a powerful performance as a humourless monomaniac, but without personal details the portrayal lacks depth.

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Program
Written by
John Hodge
Directed by
Stephen Frears
Starring
Ben Foster and Chris O’Dowd
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

There's a scene in The Program in which Lance Armstrong interrupts the tight schedule of a celebrity cancer-ward visit to sit in companionable silence with a very sick child. It is about the only time in this sports drama that the disgraced cyclist does anything that is not self-serving or fraudulent. And that's a problem, because who wants to spend 100 minutes in the company of an unrepentant jerk?

The movie, limply directed by the British veteran Stephen Frears, is based on the work of the Irish sports journalist David Walsh, who was instrumental in exposing Armstrong. It achieves its few brushes with true excitement not on the Tour de France circuit but in the press room as Walsh (the always sympathetic Chris O'Dowd) stakes his career on his hunch that Armstrong's miraculous wins are indeed too good to be true.

Otherwise, Frears plods through a sorry but by now rather familiar tale of a competitive cyclist who was using banned substances before he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and whose determination to make a postchemo comeback made him viciously systematic in his drug-taking and blood doping – while his cancer fundraising helped protect him from scrutiny.

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In the lead role, Ben Foster puts in a powerful performance as a humourless monomaniac, but since the script by John Hodge avoids any backstory and most personal details – Armstrong's wife Kristin says about three words and is shown only twice – there is no space here in which to explain or probe his character.

Sure, cycling was riddled with drugs during those years; yes, Armstrong's personality was hardened by cancer, but what made him so contemptuous of anyone but himself is never explained. Although the makeup department does a superb job when both Armstrong and his Belgian team director Johan Bruyneel (Denis Ménochet) come under increasing pressure as the wins and the allegations mount, Foster's single-note performance as the adamant Armstrong becomes tiring. We don't know why this guy is so hard and we don't really care.

In contrast, Jesse Plemons's heartrending depiction of Floyd Landis's moral confusion – Frears and Hodge rather awkwardly sketch in his strict Mennonite upbringing – suggest Armstrong's whistle-blowing lieutenant might make a more interesting topic for a film.

What's really intriguing, meanwhile, are the things that pointed to the fix: Dustin Hoffman belatedly appears as Bob Hamman, the champion bridge player whose sports-promotions company was underwriting the bonuses for Armstrong's repeatedly victorious team: He calls Walsh to tell him that he knows what the cyclist is doing is statistically impossible. Now there's a movie.

Unfortunately for Frears, the actual story of the unravelling of what documentarian Alex Gibney called The Armstrong Lie is rather anticlimatic since Armstrong successfully sued Walsh for libel in a British court and the fact that his paper, The Sunday Times, eventually got its money back is only a footnote.

The Program makes passing references to the power of celebrity and the Live Strong narrative – the cyclist admits to telling people what they wanted to hear – but it never goes deep on what it was that produced the awfulness that is Lance Armstrong.

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