We know that Lance Armstrong, former professional cyclist and seven time Tour de France winner, is a liar and a drugs cheat after his 2013 mea culpa interview with Oprah Winfrey. So what else does this unfussy and unforgiving biopic, directed by Stephen Frears ('Philomena') and written by John Hodge ('Trainspotting'), offer audiences – especially those who are familiar with the story, who have read the books or seen Alex Gibney's excoriating 2013 doc 'The Armstrong Lie'?
The question you want 'The Program' to answer is this: what made Armstrong (played with manic compulsion by Ben Foster) behave as he did? What drove him to humiliate his accusers and hide behind the shield of being a plucky cancer survivor and superhuman charitable campaigner? This brisk, no-nonsense film ducks a hard-and-fast fresh perspective on all this. Instead it approaches the story from various angles and leaves the final analysis to us. It warms up cold facts and reconstructs them as Greek tragedy. We already know how Armstrong cheated the system – but that accusation comes horrifyingly alive when you see him hurriedly pumping water into his veins to dilute banned substances in the face of a threatened drugs test.
Partly it's a Frankenstein story, with Armstrong's Italian doctor Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) helping to create a monster. Partly it's a celebration of the righteous being vindicated as Dustin Hoffman's suspicious risk insurer and Chris O'Dowd's equally suspicious journalist, David Walsh, fight hard to prove Armstrong's guilt. Partly it's a story of how a sport was rife with corruption and how Armstrong, a man with a unique relationship to his body after surviving cancer, was primed to be the best drugs cheat among many.
Ben Foster offers a wily and uningratiating performance: his Armstrong seems an entirely public creation, without any close family or friends who Frears and Hodge feel worth depicting. But 'The Program' gives us some delicious moments of pure imagined drama, including Armstrong rehearsing in the mirror before a press conference, repeatedly mouthing 'I have never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs,' like De Niro in 'Taxi Driver'. Foster does great work with these rich ingredients, making the most of every eerie smirk and glance. 'The Program' offers no obvious new revelations and Armstrong remains elusive – but it has an unsettling air that carries us through its more pedestrian patches.