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Review: The Armstrong Lie (2013)

The Armstrong Lie (2013)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Premise: A documentary chronicling the career of disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong.

What Works: In 2009 documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney was cooperating with Lance Armstrong and filming his attempt to win his eighth title in the Tour de France racing competition. Initially, the film was to be titled The Road Back and would tell the story of Armstrong’s recovery from testicular cancer culminating in what was hoped would be a victory in the race that had defined his career. However, when Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, the documentary was shelved. Following Armstrong’s televised confession to Oprah Winfrey, director Alex Gibney decided to turn lemons into lemonade by combining his existing footage with new interviews with Armstrong, his partners, and his accusers and retitled the project The Armstrong Lie. The result is an exceptional film that tells a compelling story of deceit and corruption while also exploring the broader implications of the Armstrong saga. As several commentators in The Armstrong Lie point out, his story is not really about sports or even about cheating but about power and ambition. The way the film depicts it, Armstrong was obsessed with winning at whatever cost and his ambition and ego would not accept anything less. He and his teammates were able to rationalize what they did in part because the ends justified the means but also because of the culture of professional racing and its corruption by financial interests. Armstrong’s success on the bike led him to commercial opportunities, giving sponsors a vested intererst in his integrity, and his story of a cancer survivor turned champion athlete was something that the cycling industry could translate into popular interest in the sport. As a result, cycling officials, journalists, and racing aficionados turned a blind eye or actively protected his name. As awful as Armstrong is, the filmmakers constantly remind the audience that his deception was a team effort, which of course makes it worse. However, it also puts filmmaker Alex Gibney on his home turf. In movies like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney consistently makes films about powerful people and institutions bamboozling the public and he puts those skills to use in The Armstrong Lie. Because of the unique situation in which the film was created he is also able to interrogate the way a documentarian can be corrupted by his subject and the film is a thoughtful exploration of the ethics of filmmaking and the allure of the myth of the sports hero.

What Doesn’t: As thorough as The Armstrong Lie is, the ending of the movie feels a little incomplete. After fully exploring the system of lies and deception and explaining how Armstrong and his team concealed their doping, the movie ends on the suggestion that Armstrong’s use of performance enhancers may have gone on even longer than he has admitted. The lack of a resolution on this issue is disappointing, especially given the degree to which the filmmakers dealt with his admitted use. The final moments of The Armstrong Lie tell us that the cyclist is facing legal prosecution but the film was released before that matter was resolved. Given that the filmmakers went through the effort of retooling the picture to incorporate the new revelations, it is surprising they did not wait until the story had reached its ultimate conclusion. The storytelling of The Armstrong Lie is very fragmented and at times it is challenging to keep up with the story. The filmmakers jump all over the timeline. This allows them to juxtapose contemporary testimonies of journalists and truth tellers with archival footage of Armstrong’s denials. The resulting disorientation befits the complexity of the lie but it also makes it hard to keep up with what the truth actually was. The Armstrong Lie is also hard to watch because its subject is such a grotesque human being; by the end of the picture it is clear that Lance Armstrong can be ranked with the most infamous sports figures of all time, matching (and in some cases eclipsing) the disdain inspired by Ty Cobb, Marion Jones, Tiger Woods, and Michael Vick. The story of this documentary is compelling enough to keep us watching but it’s also a little disheartening because of the greedy and entitled sociopath at the center of it.
DVD extras: Commentary track, filmmaker Q&A, deleted scenes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: The Armstrong Lie is terrific documentary filmmaking. This picture tells a story of corruption, hubris, and deceit that is as riveting as anything in fiction while also managing to provide insight into the way in which fans, journalists, and sponsors will enable their own deception. Alex Gibney has emerged as one of the best documentary filmmakers working today and this is one of this most important works.

Episode: #490 (May 11, 2014)