Lance Armstrong didn’t just repeatedly lie about doping during his seven Tour de France wins, but he maintained and even flaunted those lies through ill-gotten power — and he still believes his own hype.
Such is the portrayal of the disgraced cyclist in Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, “The Armstrong Lie.” If Armstrong’s Oprah Winfrey confessional didn’t make him one of the most odious athletes in the world, this film will.
In a series of interviews with Gibney, Armstrong is far more arrogant than contrite, saying he expects history to regard him as a seven-time Tour de France champ. He was stripped of those titles and banned from professional sports for life last year when anti-doping investigators finally learned he had consistently cheated during competition.
“I didn’t live a lot of lies,” Armstrong says in the film’s opening scene, shot earlier this year. “But I lived one big one.”
Gibney hadn’t set out to make a movie about Armstrong’s unlikely rise and dramatic fall. It was supposed to be, as the director says in a statement, “a feel-good story” chronicling the celebrity athlete’s return to cycling three years after retiring with the goal of winning the Tour de France again. Gibney spent more than a year following Armstrong and his team in 2008 and 2009. Armstrong didn’t win the Tour that year, but still made it to the winner’s podium in third place.
The film was practically finished when several of Armstrong’s former teammates came forward in 2011 with stories of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout competitive cycling, and specifically by its star rider.
Next came Armstrong’s confession to Winfrey and follow-up interviews with Gibney, who narrates the film and explains its change of course.
The new approach — no longer a feel-good story — required more footage and more interviews, leading to an overlong running time of more than two hours.
Gibney spoke with Armstrong’s teammates, who detail how the doping went down, as well as the team’s former physician, who was banned from professional sports for life last year after being charged with trafficking and administering prohibited substances. Armstrong himself also discusses the prevalence and practice of doping in interviews interspersed with his plentiful and vociferous public denials of drug use. The Armstrong Lie is repeated again and again.
The director explores how overcoming cancer and returning to compete professionally made Armstrong a media and corporate darling and boosted his sport’s profile. With an inspiring story that brought hope (and millions in donations) to cancer survivors, Armstrong became a legendary figure who gained unmatched wealth and power in cycling and beyond. That power moved millions of yellow Livestrong bracelets and filled Armstrong’s head with notions of grandeur that made him feel like he wasn’t cheating even when he was.
Gibney shows Armstrong as a teenage triathlete, a recovering cancer patient and arrogant champ who wielded his tremendous influence to maintain his profile. He was determined to win, whether on the bike or against his detractors.
Ample racing footage, some shot from competing riders’ seats and handlebars, adds excitement to the collection of interviews with more than a dozen subjects. Gibney even shows himself in the film, admitting he was caught up as a fan and personally disappointed to learn Armstrong had lied to him over the years.
Ultimately, “The Armstrong Lie” is an unforgiving, unflattering portrait of a fallen athlete and inspiration. Armstrong, who apparently has a deal for back-end profits on the film, should really check it out. He might learn something.