Late in the film “Lance,” a documentary that depicts the ascent and the crash of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, the subject recalls the disappearance of his lucrative sponsorships. These deals — with a massive market value and a perhaps more important intangible value of keeping him in the public eye as a figure of rectitude and hard work — were in some sense his life’s work, and they vanished after his 2013 admission that he had used illegal doping throughout his cycling career. “All gone in 48 hours,” Armstrong recalls. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I work for myself now.” It’s a testament to the methodical, damning assembly of “Lance,” the new documentary in which Armstrong makes this admission, that you don’t believe him at all.
Director Marina Zenovich has built a work that moves unhurriedly through the Armstrong story, shifting from his present-day life as a pariah to the story of his astounding rise in the world of cycling. It’s a film that combines a sharp understanding of Armstrong with a refusal to blink, or to summarize neatly when complication will do. This prolix curiosity explains “Lance’s” somewhat punishing three-hour-plus running time, but, ultimately, justifies it too. It’s a work with a precise moral compass about a person who comes to seem as though he lacks one entirely — and a work that, most strikingly of all, seeks to understand rather than condemn him.
The Armstrong of the present day, a fellow who speaks at length to Zenovich’s camera and at times evades her prompts, is squirrelly and somewhat lost. He has only just settled a lawsuit with the U.S. government (to the tune of $5 million Armstrong must pay), and his need for money forms a steady, subtle backbeat to the story. What he more pointedly needs is a place to be: He hangs around the house a lot with his girlfriend and kids. Or he shows up to random, small-scale charity events, where he’s welcomed somewhat begrudgingly, despite having been for a time the face of the anti-cancer movement. Or he goes to his son’s college football game and gives a meandering, lost motivational speech that droops mercifully to an end, despite having once been the world’s most prominent athlete.
Counterpoint is never used cruelly or gratuitously here, but connections announce themselves all the same. As a former cancer patient who ended up winning seven Tour de France titles, Armstrong was seen as a national avatar of resilience, grit, and optimism. He emerged as a superstar after both his own having survived cancer and after previous doping scandals left the sport of cycling in need of a transformational hero. Armstrong’s fame was built on ideas of mind-over-matter bodily achievement; that his success was based in part on illegal drugs is somehow more jarring a betrayal than similar crimes by his peers. Even his truly good deeds felt in a way tainted: His charity, Livestrong, is discussed in the film as a genuinely useful and inspirational entity, but it’s hard not to miss that its name incorporated Armstrong’s own and it tended to redound toward shoring up his image as a person of unique moral fiber. Having achieved at the highest levels both of sport and of American life more broadly — a man who met presidents, who attained media celebrity, and who was widely recognized as both a charitable leader and a sort of guru of physical and mental discipline — his fall seems all the more pronounced.
Which Armstrong cannot allow himself to recognize, in what comes to be a masterful depiction of a person for whom lying is more natural than truth. The film bears similarities to the similar character study “O.J.: Made in America” (another expansive portrait about someone much more than an athlete from ESPN Films), but tends to keep its aperture focused more tightly on Armstrong’s own behavior rather than what it tells us about his world. There’s certainly enough there: Armstrong might be, today, a beloved figure about whom drug use was still only suspected by some, had he not pushed the lie further with a preposterous comeback attempt. And his claim to the camera that “I needed a fucking nuclear meltdown, and I got it” seems a similar extension past reality. After all, his removal from the pantheon of his sport and of American celebrity seems not to have readjusted his sense of right or wrong — he muses about how it would have been great had he not been caught, and has no meaningful perspective on how he felt living a lie for so many years, so boldly in public. Indeed, he seems not really to understand the question, in a moment Zenovich doesn’t hold on or overplay a beat more than necessary.
It’s in moments like those, or like his flashing, bitter anger at the whistleblower who brought his world down — far more rancorous, still, than it might be had Armstrong accepted his fate as much as he’d like us to think — that the human emerges. This is, perhaps, the most valuable excavation Zenovich does. Armstrong was uniquely effective as a spokesperson for a personal brand with a lot of associations (goodness, ambition, effort), but no real meaning; his period of megafame required little humanity. Indeed, it seemed categorically to exclude it: The point of Armstrong the superstar was that he was something more than human, and, absent doubt or second-guessing or frailty in his post-cancer life, something less, too. In “Lance,” we see him even if he somehow, still, cannot see himself. The movie’s point is made most poignantly by the mere fact of Armstrong speaking to camera, and the degree of intimacy he shares with Zenovich even as she is working at entirely cross-purposes to the image-maintenance he’s still trying to do. For Armstrong, being seen by the camera is of paramount importance. It’s one more lie he tells himself, and one that — as it generated a documentary of such moving texture and precision — the audience should feel fortunate that he did.