THE ARMSTRONG LIE – The Review
Alex Gibney is one of our most prolific documentary film makers with over a dozen feature films to his credit (along with several shorts and TV productions). Particularly with his works on the economy, military intelligence, and the war in the Middle East, he’s had a firm grip on current events. With his new film, Gibney enters into a different area, or subset, of documentaries. Much like last year’s highly entertaining THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES and the Oscar winner SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, the original intent or narrative thrust changed while filming with the end result being a very different from the work that was planned. At first titled “The Road Back”, Gibney had planned to follow celebrated cyclist Lance Armstrong as he trained to come out of retirement to compete once again. When the scandals broke and the headlines began, Gibney tossed aside the first film title and went with the more provacative, and more truthful, THE ARMSTRONG LIE.
The film begins with the taping of Armstrong’s big media confession with, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Gibney, who had been filming Lance for the previous three years, was allowed to be there during this major TV event. After the crew from Harpo left, Gibney was allowed some one-on-one time with the disgraced former champion. The film flashes back to the original announcement that Lance would “un-retire” (after dropping out in 2005) and compete in the 2009 Tour de France. We then are taken further back to his childhood, his early victories, his battle with testicular cancer, and the triumphant return that would make him a sports superstar (hanging with celebs, multi-million dollar endorsements, and even hosting TV’s “Saturday Night Live”!). Sports commentators, fellow athletes, and team mates are all interviewed. Then the scandals are replayed with news footage and new talks with those who have had very public fallouts with Lance. And with that final comeuppance, the high-flying golden boy finally crashes back to Earth.
Gibney keeps the film rolling on at a good clip, perhaps because of the film’s structure that quickly flashes forward and back in order for a larger overview of Armstrong’s life and career. The director does break a big rule of documentaries by becoming a part of the story, but this can be excused considering the dramatic turn of events that forced Gibney to change the film’s focus. And, as he states in the film’s final moments, he was swept up in the big “lie”. We’re shown just how the athletes are able to skirt the drug-tests (most disturbingly via blood transfusions) and we’re told about racing officials and sponsors who weren’t that concerned about said tests. There’s new interviews with sports reporters and writers who earned the ire of Lance, and were subsequently punished by restricting access. And there’s plenty of infighting and hurt feelings amongst Lance’s teammates (often involving clandestine recordings). Surprisingly we even hear from the team trainer/coach/ medical consultant Michele Ferrari who deftly dodges any aspersions on his character. But at the film’s heart is the tarnished idol himself. We see him fighting back against the doping charges during his heyday, often painting himself as a martyr because not everyone could believe that this cancer survivor could come back stronger than ever. Then we see him in full attack mode against team mates and the press. Armstrong could have coasted along for years on his triumphs, but his ego may have been his Achilles’ heel. Just once more, with a “this is all for charity” reason covering his desire to win without any “help”. But that dream provided his undoing. In the end, Armstrong, seems unremorseful, almost obstinate,with that “I had to, since everybody else is doing it” reasoning. THE ARMSTRONG LIE is a tough, gritty lesson not to feed in to the hype and that our heroes have the same fears and weaknesses as any of us.
3.5 Out of 5
THE ARMSTRONG LIE screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas