program_xlg***1/2 (out of five)

Stephen Frears knows how to make movies. Check out this selection from his CV: My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena. If you can’t find something there to love, you don’t appreciate cinema.

His ferocious portrait of Lance Armstrong’s doping program is as cold and steely as its subject. There’s no time wasted here on wives, children, parents, childhood, religion, politics, puppy dogs or pussy cats. This film is about bicycles and drugs – mainly drugs.

Of course, it’s really about Armstrong, and as played superbly – and very, very coldly – by the extremely gifted Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma, Lone Survivor), he’s a creep. This adheres to everything I’ve read and seen and heard about the cyclist, which amounts to a lot. Even his attempts to be charming are creepy. His ambition is so naked, so transparent, he cannot even pretend to give a damn about other people.

Set up against Armstrong is Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who was instrumental, but not solely responsible, for exposing Armstrong’s staggering levels of deception. As played amiably and professionally – as usual – by Chris O’Dowd, Walsh is a decent enough good antagonist (to this story’s villainous protagonist) but the circumstances of history prevent them from having a proper showdown, and thus we the audience from achieving emotional catharsis.

That said, I was gripped throughout. I’m a sucker for the material, granted, but that’s because it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. If you’re green on Armstrong or a Tour De France junkie, there’ll be something here for you. As usual for Frears, the craftsmanship is superb, and the casting in particular is inspired: Lee Pace, Jesse Plemens and a surprising and pleasing Dustin Hoffman are all great in their roles. The one bum note is a truly weird performance by Guillaume Canet as the godfather of doping, “Dr.” Michele Ferrari. It may well be that Ferrari used cyclists like rats in an experiment, but to play him like Dr. Frankenstein from an early talkie is a bit much.

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