The disgraced hero at the center of one of the most compelling rise-and-fall narratives in recent years gets exhaustive and penetrating documentary treatment in “The Armstrong Lie.” Focusing primarily on the past four years of Lance Armstrong’s life — from his 2009 post-retirement comeback bid to his recent admission that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, despite vehement denials over the course of his extraordinary career — director Alex Gibney delivers not just a detailed, full-access account of his subject, in all his defiance, hubris and tentative self-reckoning, but also a layered inquiry into the culture of competitiveness, celebrity, moral relativism and hypocrisy that helped enable and sustain his deception. Although unlikely to match the TV audience for Armstrong’s revelatory interview with Oprah Winfrey in January, this authoritative and well-timed Sony Classics release should easily become one of Gibney’s more widely seen efforts.
Gibney began filming Armstrong in 2008 as he prepared to make a splashy return to competitive cycling after having retired three years earlier. But what might have once been a largely admiring, celebratory documentary was derailed by the re-emergence of doping allegations that had persistently plagued the fabled athlete; investigations by federal prosecutors and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency led to his eventual public confession and downfall. The result is a much more critical, sobering and, naturally, fascinating film about a figure who had seemingly overcome the worst kind of adversity and achieved miraculous success on the basis of talent and commitment alone.
Using the Winfrey interview to set the stage, Gibney pulls back to recount Armstrong’s astounding story, from the testicular cancer that left him with a less-than-50% chance of survival in 1996, to the seven consecutive Tour de France victories (1999-2005) that cemented his standing as one of the world’s greatest athletes. One of the key ironies here is that Armstrong’s secret might never have been publicly exposed had he been content to stay retired: It was his second grab at the spotlight that re-energized his critics and angered the numerous cyclists who had themselves been busted for doping, many of them former teammates who had firsthand knowledge of Armstrong’s own use of EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone, cortisone and blood transfusions to boost his performance over the years.
Those who eventually testified against Armstrong (and are interviewed here) include George Hincapie, his best friend and regular cycling domestique, and Frankie Andreu, who along with his wife, Betsy, said they overheard Armstrong disclose his use of performance-enhancing drugs to cancer doctors in 1996, a claim he still denies. Apart from author Dan Coyle, who offers withering assessments of Armstrong’s legacy, Betsy Andreu emerges as the film’s most forceful and outspoken presence, leading the charge against the most famous figure in a sport whose reputation and other participants were irreversibly damaged by his actions.
Another key figure granted significant screentime here is Michele Ferrari, the Italian sports doctor whose obsession with pushing the human body to and beyond its physical limits led him to devise the most advanced and sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs available, using Armstrong as guinea pig and the Tour de France as a regular testing ground. One of the most essential aspects of Gibney’s film — and what distinguishes it from the average primetime interview — is the scientific acuity of his research, explaining how EPO increases endurance by stimulating red-blood cell production, an effect that can also be achieved through the more grisly route of a blood transfusion (which Armstrong and Ferrari also experimented with).
The effect of these details is to expose the surprising degree to which Armstrong was able to calculate his own narrative, belying the against-the-odds inspirationalism that has generally accompanied its telling. “This is not a story about doping; it’s a story about power,” one interviewee shrewdly notes, and “The Armstrong Lie” zeroes in on the cynical realities of a sport where victory falls to those with the best medical and financial resources, and where the lure of sponsorships, massive publicity and millions of dollars in cancer-fighting research can encourage even the head of the Intl. Cycling Union to look the other way. The film also taps into the warped mentality of a professional sport where everyone of consequence is assumed to be doping under a code of collective silence, making it easy enough for a cheater to convince himself he isn’t gaining an unfair advantage so much as staying competitive.
Questions still linger about the degree to which Armstrong was doping, if at all, during his comeback attempt, and the docu devotes considerable time to the fateful 2009 Tour de France, in which he overcame grueling setbacks to achieve a hard-won third-place victory. (He was beaten by Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, who was himself later busted for doping, and who is lightly described here as a younger incarnation of Armstrong himself.) In its second half, the film toggles between a 2009 interview with a still-defensive, cocksure Armstrong and a 2013 sitdown in which he appears suitably chastened and forthright, if not as effusively confessional and apologetic as some may demand. The final passages leave us with the haunting impression that it can be awfully lonely at the top, and even more so at the bottom.
Technical assembly is outstanding. One of the film’s chief pleasures is the ample coverage it affords the act of cycling itself via the scenic and well-edited Tour de France footage, a reminder that this sport, however compromised, remains a remarkable human undertaking. In a personal touch that befits a documentary in which he became more personally invested than usual, Gibney handles the narration duties himself.