A tragic portrait of a compulsive liar who dodged so many bullets it's almost mythical.
The Armstrong Lie
In 2008, when legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong announced that he would return from retirement and compete in the Tour de France once again (he’d won seven years straight, from 1999 to 2005), director Alex Gibney saw an incredible opportunity to tell the story Armstrong’s resurgence and began filming a documentary called The Road Back, chronicling the cyclist’s triumphant return. For the next few years, Gibney followed Armstrong around, developed a close relationship with him, and found himself becoming emotionally wrapped up in the cycling legend’s comeback story (which he admits in the film.) Armstrong placed 3rd in the 2009 Tour de France, and according to Gibney, it was “the perfect ending for the film I wanted to make.”
Early this year, after viciously denying accusations of doping for years, Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey on national television (following the surfacing of overwhelming blood test evidence) that he had, indeed, been taking performance enhancing drugs all along, tarnishing his career and all seven Tour de France wins, which he was subsequently stripped of. Out of necessity, Gibney’s film transformed radically, the result of which is the newly named The Armstrong Lie, an endless parade of archival footage of Armstrong stonewalling doping allegations made cringe-worthy in light of his recent confession.
The first hour of the film recalls Armstrong’s youth, when his hyper-competitiveness was untamed and he bullied his way around the cycling world. He was clearly prideful to a fault, which Gibney suggests later fed into his staunch refusal to concede and admit guilt. It’s impressive, in a twisted way, watching how good he was at lying; Armstrong’s alpha-male conviction and unblinking retorts sound convincing, even with knowledge of the irrevocable truth floating around our heads. It’s uncomfortable to watch him unleash his wrath on these poor reporters, whose accusations were vindicated only after years of denunciation from the millions who considered Armstrong a hero and wore his famous “Livestrong” bracelets proudly.
What complicates things is that Armstrong (a testicular cancer survivor) did a lot of good with his Livestrong campaign, which raised an unprecedented amount of money to help cancer patients across the globe. Is the money dirty, like his cycling career? I’m not so sure. But it’s almost unbearable to watch Armstrong ducking behind his Livestrong supporters like a shield when asked about doping at press conferences. It’s moral ugliness on the highest level.
Gibney goes into great detail about the lengths professional cyclists go to to evade drug testing and illegally enhance their performances (the sport has a long reputation of being dirty.) Aside from the typical pill-popping, some athletes would even transfuse drug-infused blood into their veins during a race inside standby buses as police and citizens stood mere feet away. The audacity of it all is so ludicrous it’s a wonder Armstrong got away with it for as long as he did.
Armstrong’s one-note personality isn’t interesting enough to make the two-hour running time engaging throughout. Watching him lie through his teeth is fascinating at first, but Gibney lays it on too heavy, rehashing the same points over and over. What’s troubling is that Gibney absolves himself of any association with Armstrong, even going so far as to scornfully, definitively proclaim that the cyclist “cheated” his way through his career in his film narration. Surely, after following Armstrong so closely for several years, he must have known something was up. Is he really trying to play dumb here? The film really begins to curdle due to Gibney’s ethical shakiness.
It’s still up in the air whether or not Armstrong rode clean in the 2009 Tour de France. He certainly didn’t dominate like he had in the past, which you could chalk up to his advancing age, or other things. He denies to this day that he took any illegal substances during the race. Is it his ego talking again? It’s saddening to think it. The Armstrong Lie is a tragic portrait of an egotistical, compulsive liar who dodged so many bullets it’s almost mythical.