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The Armstrong Lie

Dir/scr: Alex Gibney. US. 2013.122mins

Prolific documentary maker Alex Gibney’s latest feature is nothing if not timely. After US cyclist Lance Armstrong’s confession on the Oprah Winfrey show in January 2013 that he had, as his critics had long maintained, not only taken performance-enhancing drugs during his seven Tour de France victories, but also lied about it for well over a decade, there was still one big question remaining: why? Gibney’s engaging, punchy documentary, which includes footage of a post-confession interview the director conducted with Armstrong, probably comes as close to answering this as anyone ever will, without quite nailing a sportsman who, as this film makes clear, does not really do contrition.

Armstrong is revealed to be a control-freak for whom continual denials of the truth, in press conferences and books, were part and parcel of the bullying tactics he applied to cycling rivals, fellow team members and even Gibney himself, who tells us at one point that “Lance tried to dominate my film too”

Picked up by Sony Pictures Classics late in July, just over a month before its Venice Film Festival premiere, this rangy but never foot-dragging documentary should find an audience wherever cycling is big. It should also cross over to non sports fans a tad more than the original Armstrong documentary Gibney signed on to make, which was to be about the cyclist’s 2009 Tour de France comeback attempt, at the ripe old age of 38.

It’s difficult to believe that the director of pugnacious investigative docs like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) or Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God (2012) should have agreed to direct an inspirational sports comeback story. But it’s clear that even in that original 2009 version of the story, the doping charges were to be tackled head-on, and many of the interviews with Armstrong ‘doubters’ like teammates Frankie Andreu, his wife Betsy and cycling writer David Walsh date from this shoot. We’re never told why that original ‘comeback’ film was never finished; it may have something to with the fact that in the 2009 tour, Armstrong only finished third.

With Gibney losing out on the Armstrong confession to Oprah (at one point, it seems there was a real possibility that this documentary might break the story), the director tells us, near the beginning, that he decided in this new film to answer the following question: given that Lance Armstrong has declared that if he hadn’t come back in 2009, he would never have been caught, what made him do it – why could he not just sit back and bask in the glow of his seven yellow jerseys?

That’s probably not the question a director who didn’t have a lot of 2009 footage lying around would have chosen to ask, but luckily the documentary that ensues ends up revealing a lot more than the answer to this rather limited question. Above all, it’s a portrait of a talented sportsman who only really cares about two things. One is winning. The other is being in charge of his own story. We’re reminded, via a snappily-edited, fast-paced mix of archive footage and Gibney interleavings, just why this story was considered so remarkable. In October 1996, only four years into his career as a professional cyclist, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had already spread to his lungs and brain. Given a clean bill of health after just four months of treatment, he founded a foundation to help children with cancer and their families. Less than three years later, in July 1999, the reborn champion secured the first of seven consecutive Tour de France victories.

Doping accusations weave in and out of the story, with Armstrong’s personal performance-enhancing medical advisor, Michele Ferrari, introduced with a dose of tongue-in-cheek irony as the villain of the piece. It’s fascinating to learn just how sophisticated the deceptions were, with illegal blood transfusions at one point carried out in plain sight on a team bus during a Tour stage.  Cycling regulatory body UCI is suggested to have been, at this time, partly complicit in a drug culture that is shown to be the rule rather than the exception, actually tipping cyclists off when their blood- and urine-test values were close to allowed limits.

More than victim of ‘the culture’, Armstrong is revealed to be a control-freak for whom continual denials of the truth, in press conferences and books, were part and parcel of the bullying tactics he applied to cycling rivals, fellow team members and even Gibney himself, who tells us at one point that “Lance tried to dominate my film too”. By the end of The Armstrong Lie, we’ve had no really cathartic confession, only a slightly incoherent self-justification that comes out like blood from a stone. But watching a man live a lie for so many years that he start to believe it is still an absorbing experience.

Production companies: Sony Pictures Classics presents a Kennedy/Marshall production in association with Jigsaw Productions and Matt Tolmach Productions

International sales: Sony Pictures Releasing International, www.spe.sony.com

Producers: Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, Alex Gibney

Co-producers: Jennie Amias, Mark Higgins, Beth Howard

Cinematography: Maryse Alberti

Editor: Andy Grieve, Tim Squyres

Music: David Kahne 

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