Lance Armstrong is a cheater. Alex Gibney’s piercing, maddening documentary about the seven-time Tour de France winner was never intended to be an indictment of the legend that has grown in the past few years. Starting in 2009, Gibney set out to make a documentary about Armstrong’s comeback amidst the talks of whether he had doped during his previous victories. Gibney was skeptical about his subject at first, but did not want to get caught up in the fact/fiction narratives surrounding Armstrong. In 2009 interviews with Gibney, Armstrong never openly admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs; as the documentarian followed the cyclist through his everyday routines, interviews, and practices, there was no semblance of this being a man who would cheat his way through the system. At one point late in the film, as Gibney shows some of the footage from Armstrong’s final race at the 2009 Tour de France, he mentions that he was no longer a filmmaker in these moments, but a fan. He was swept up in the hoopla.
Gibney interviewed many people involved with Armstrong over his most successful years. He talked with trainers, previous team members, competitors, bloggers, and essentially anyone that was involved with Lance over his years working in the sport. Much like his other excellent documentary this year, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney persists in order to find the truth; that’s his strength as one of the finest documentarians working today. Michele Ferrari, a trainer who helped many cyclists dope professionally and maximize their potential, granted access for a short interview that Gibney used for insight; Ferrari is a shady man that ultimately hid more in the interviews than he exposed. Fitting, considering the interview was done at the time when Armstrong was not guilty, and still trying to rejuvenate his career. Betsy and Frankie Andreu also provide exceptional testimonials on how Lance’s failure to admit his known guilt cost them their careers and a normal life. When he delivers an apology after all is said and done, she talks about the cathartic effect it had on them. The lie was finally done.
Oprah’s interview changed everything for Gibney, who saw the fraud that had stood before him countless times falsely defending his honor; in there lies the essence of The Armstrong Lie. His film is relentless in nature and dense, running around 122 minutes and exposing every aspect of Armstrong’s career during his 2009 comeback. More so than anything, Gibney (along with plenty of media) was hung up on why Armstrong would decide to come back after all his time off, and the major successes he had accomplished in the sport. Looking back now, it becomes obvious that he wanted to prove that he could win the Tour de France without doping, yet even that remains blurry due to one race where Armstrong definitely used performance-enhancing drugs. It was the only way to survive in a sport dominated by drugs and scandal. Armstrong is a good man, one who fought for charity and cancer research, wanting to help others; it’s a shame that through his deceit in the sport, one that required people to falsify their athleticism behind a wall of narcotics, he became a merciless liar.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)
Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s site on Friday.