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As you imagine Lance Armstrong himself reflects a few hundred times a day, his story could have ended so differently. Had he not chosen to stage an ego-driven comeback to professional cycling in 2009, he would likely never have been exposed as a cheat, and The Program — the tale of his dope-fuelled rise and hubris-riddled fall — would never have been made. The inevitable biopic would instead have been the mythic celebration hinted at in a scene here, as a teammate reacts to casting news: “Jake Gyllenhaal? Dude, that is awesome.”
It’s unlikely Stephen Frears would have made that movie, although in the course of his version, which stars Ben Foster, we catch the occasional glimpse of it. Frears brings vigour to recreating Armstrong’s Tours de France, the angles of his mountain climbs so canted our lungs burn in sympathy.
But in this brisk, enjoyable film, adapted from journalist David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, Armstrong and almost every cyclist involved spends as much time propped up in bed as in the saddle, appended to an IV or syringe. Even a filmmaker less sardonic than Frears would be tempted to find room on the soundtrack, as he does, for The Fall’s “Mr Pharmacist”. The rot has already set in before the cancer diagnosis that cements the Armstrong legend; after his recovery comes the ascent into the superman of Mont Ventoux and, in private, manic self-justification: “I don’t die!” he roars, summoning the lawyers.
He won’t be, but Armstrong should be glad to have inspired a turn as remarkable as Foster’s. The actor seems to slip into the very bones of his character; the effect can be unnerving. Frears is more detached, content to furnish the story with a wry sense of mischief. The Program nudges us into asking whether, when everyone in a sport is cheating, anyone is cheating at all. But it’s also loath to indulge in what Orson Welles called “dollar-book Freud”, and Lance rides off with his mystery intact.