Film Review: The Armstrong Lie

A Tour de Farce

The Armstrong Lie | C+

World champion cyclist Lance Armstrong cheated. And then he lied. And now he can’t seem to fully admit just how deep his lies went. Worse, he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of remorse about his dishonesty, which of course makes his very public apologies yet more lies.

If Alex Gibney’s documentary does anything, it thoroughly — some might say, exhaustively — sets the record straight for anyone who missed the avalanche of press coverage, or the episode of 60 Minutes, that covered the star cyclist’s fall from grace.

Gibney’s film started as a chronicle of Armstrong’s 2009 attempt to come back and win his eighth Tour de France title. However, when the hammer came down on Lance’s long history of doping, the celebrated filmmaker was forced to shift gears and turn his movie into a two-hour indictment of the athlete’s behavior and the sport he helped to corrupt.

Unfortunately, even with the switch in tactics, Gibney ends up a day late and a dollar short — with his subject (and friend) once again scooping the doc with an obligatory mea culpa on Oprah. There went Gibney’s chance for an exclusive interview. As a result, The Armstrong Lie comes across as sloppy seconds, a well-made but unenlightening dismantling of the myth of the man.

Using the 2009 race as his framing device, Gibney’s film becomes an encapsulation of everything we already know, with just a few behind-the-scenes tidbits to keep things interesting. Watching how Armstrong and his teammates performed blood transfusions during races in vehicles parked along the side of the road is pretty disturbing stuff, and Gibney does a good job of laying out exactly how steroids and EPO enhance an athlete’s performance.

But, let’s face it: Hearing a world-class athlete lie about using performance-enhancing drugs is, sadly, nothing new. What makes Armstrong such a creepy douche bag is how relentlessly he bullied and betrayed friends and teammates, throwing them under the bus in order to cover his own ass. His hubris comes across as borderline sociopathic. This makes a scene where he snivels about being “persecuted” because he has to submit to a blood and urine test all the more pathetic. Not only does he use the presence of his kids as an excuse, but he verbally berates the poor saps who have to administer the tests.

This is where Gibney misses his biggest opportunity. Had he focused his story on how Armstrong lied, how he conspired and sold out his teammates and pals, he might have a more compelling film. While he does get cyclist and ex-friend Floyd Landis on screen, it’s not enough to paint a full picture.
Even when Gibney does get a sit-down with his subject, he doesn’t use the opportunity to dig in. He’s no more forceful in his questioning than Oprah. This allows the too-polished Armstrong to effectively deny, deflect and confess in measured doses. The man is practiced at spin, much like Donald Rumsfeld is in Errol Morris’ unrevealing The Unknown Known.

And while Armstrong admits that, if he had just stayed retired, he would have gotten away with his lies, Gibney never gets a satisfactory answer as to why he took the risk at all. It would be easy to conclude that arrogance was at the root of his behavior, but some pushback from the filmmaker would have been welcome.

Despite his morally bankrupt character, there’s no denying that Armstrong was an incredible athlete with staggering willpower. The fact that he survived both testicular and brain cancer, and then went on to compete as a world-class cyclist is achievement enough. Too bad his ego and pride led to behavior that tarnished everything — and everyone around him. To go from the celebrated hero that made ESPN’s coverage of cycling a must-see event to just another mealy-mouthed apologist talking to Oprah is a sad legacy. mt

The Armstrong Lie is playing at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, is rated R and has a running time of 122 minutes. 

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