The Armstrong Lie

Review by Emma Simmonds @EmmaSimmonds

Directed by

Alex Gibney

Starring

Lance Armstrong

Anticipation.

Who can resist a juicy scandal?

Enjoyment.

There’s plenty of meat on these bones.

In Retrospect.

A worthy effort but Armstrong remains a tough nut to crack.

On yer bike! One man doc machine Alex Gibney returns with a searing analysis of cyclist Lance Armstrong.

What price should we pay for deception? Should the consequences be proportionate? If lies raise you to the rank of hero then shouldn’t that title be retroactively stripped away? That’s certainly been the fate of former champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, the subject of the latest documentary from one-man doc industry Alex Gibney. As the title suggests, Armstrong’s extraordinary achievements and superstar status were founded on one enormous, ruthlessly protected lie — that he was racing clean.

Armstrong was a towering figure whose fame transcended the popularity of his sport. He did what (for good reason) seemed impossible; to his fellow Americans he was Superman made manifest. In 2004’s Dodgeball, when Vince Vaughn’s Peter La Fleur has a crisis of confidence, who better than Armstrong to pop up to inspire him? Armstrong didn’t just beat brain, lung and testicular cancer, he beat them and returned to his profession to win seven consecutive Tour de France titles. Considering he had only won stages of the competition prior to his diagnosis in 1996, this was a powerful message to cancer sufferers — against all odds he’d come back stronger.

Gibney attacks his subject matter from an interesting angle: he was forced to abandon a documentary charting Armstrong’s 2009/10 comeback when the doping scandal erupted. Having followed the cyclist for a year, he had begun to view Armstrong with a kind of adulation, but by the time he returned to the film a different picture had emerged, with the sportsman having finally admitted the scale of his deceit. During his voiceover Gibney admits to feeling personally betrayed — he was after all among those Armstrong had cheated.

Armstrong’s rise-and-fall makes for a terrifically compelling narrative and Gibney skilfully combines race and press conference footage with interviews from an impressive array of contributors, including Armstrong, his most vocal opponents and several of his teammates. As we watch the archive footage, what’s quickly apparent is that there’s real value to the film playing on a cinematic scale — it was of course a gargantuan deception, and you find yourself scrutinising Armstrong’s every facial flicker. And what’s most astonishing — and what most muddies the issue of forgiveness when his charitable endeavours and the sheer prevalence of doping work in his favour — is the vindictiveness of Armstrong’s attacks on those who rightly questioned and attempted to expose him.

Yet, despite Gibney’s access to Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie’s most gobsmacking moments come from the 2013 Oprah Winfrey interview, where Armstrong’s affirmative answers to Winfrey’s quick-fire questions have a bald potency. In addition, Armstrong is a stubbornly cagey character who, to this day, remains enigmatic and defensive, and the cursory look at his upbringing hardly helps illuminate matters. So if Gibney’s film doesn’t feel like the whole picture it certainly stimulates discussion. However we judge Armstrong, one thing sadly seems true: his name will forever be mentioned in conjunction with disgrace.

Published 30 Jan 2014

Anticipation.

Who can resist a juicy scandal?

Enjoyment.

There’s plenty of meat on these bones.

In Retrospect.

A worthy effort but Armstrong remains a tough nut to crack.

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