Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Lance Armstrong, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu, Johan Bruyneel
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: January 31st
“I like to win…but more than anything I just can’t stand the idea of losing because to me that equals death.”
Documentarian Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie aims to capture and harness the whirlwind of emotions surrounding the rise and fall of the seemingly miraculous Lance Armstrong, and through its scrutiny of the facts, the fiction and the uncontrollable fairytale-like legacy that the cyclist’s fans held onto for so long – it races past the finish line with flying colours.
Gibney originally shot candid footage in 2009 during Armstrong’s comeback tour—it was only some time later that after many long years of intensive doping allegations, the jig was finally up for Lance and his empire. This unearthed a secret truth about competitive cycling—that it has been tortured by this tradition for decades. Gibney, and many of the talking heads throughout the film argue that Armstrong’s cheating was not his most heinous crime—that it was his lie, for it was his aggressive deceit of the press, his many similarly guilty teammates and cycling rivals not to mention his legions of cancer surviving supporters around the globe that has truly earned him the ire he now faces.
The film highlights the American obsession with fairytale victories in sports—Armstrong’s cancer and subsequent success in the world of cycling was something to rally behind, like David versus Goliath. Even Gibney himself admits throughout the film that he found himself getting swept up in the magic of Armstrong’s story of triumph through supposed perseverance, until the lies destroyed it all. The film suggests that perhaps still, Armstrong’s celebrity was an unfair contributing factor to his demise—as he was simply levelling the playing field in the same way that so many of his peers had. Lie examines the increasingly complex methods Armstrong used to ensure seamless doping; drugs that would leave no trace after four hours, blood transfusions that would ensure maximum red-blood cells (vital for stamina over long, painful inclines)—he even adopted transportation as exotic as his own private jet and as down and dirty as hiring his gardener to covertly motorcycle across the Tour de France and deliver his drugs to him, out of sight of the customs official. Even if Armstrong was only doing what everyone else was, his detractors believe that it only cements the negative influence that money and celebrity can have on a fair sport.
While many similar films show signs of embellishment, Gibney’s work shows no such sign of weakness—hard facts are ruthlessly exhibited throughout, strengthened by media coverage and even private court recordings. All throughout, either by coincidence or design, Armstrong’s eyes appear as a character in their own right; always steely, determined and aggressive as he utters fib after fib, but hiding a secret shame that only becomes apparent in the 2013 footage where Armstrong makes an attempt at total honesty.
The film’s surprising length might be repellant for some, and at times some of the jargon might be confusing. The film’s only great misstep however is in its jarring chronology—to the uninformed layman it will prove difficult to keep up with when exactly the events being described actually happened. This is still only a minor criticism as the passion, research and beautiful cinematography that has gone into the documentary demand attention from start to finish (line).
The Armstrong Lie is as meticulously well-researched and miraculously well-rounded a portrait of Lance as we are likely to ever see. Recalling omertà, the cyclist’s code of silence, sprinklings of the truth are left unsaid, suggesting that we may never become as fully aware of the whole story as we would like. Nevertheless, to the uninformed, Lie is the best truth we could have asked for.