In 2009, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Freakonomics, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) set out to document the professional comeback of retired cycling legend Lance Armstrong. Four years later, Armstrong confessed on Oprah to doping, despite having vehemently denied it his entire career. Gibney, betrayed, set out to redo his Armstrong documentary, this time with his subject being (possibly) more honest and with a much darker introspection into the dethroned champion.
The Armstrong Lie is a collection of Tour de France footage and interviews, accompanied by Gibney’s own narration. Despite spanning a dizzying 122 minutes, the documentary was able to sustain my attention, surprising given my barebones level of interest in both cycling and doping. At the heart of it, though, the film is not just about the ethical dilemma of doping in professional sport.
Gibney builds a three-dimensional image of the fallen athlete by sling-shoting interviewees of all sides of the issue at the audience. We meet Armstrong’s personal doctor—who helped facilitate his cheating ways—and an ex-teammate and friend whom Armstrong betrayed and humiliated to save his own skin. Through these interviews, we are able to see Lance Armstrong as a proper flawed human, instead of a mythical creature who aced the world’s most momentous cycling event seven times over after combating testicular cancer. His opinions, his insecurities, his genuine passion for the sport, and his desire to be a beacon of hope are all laid bare.
There are two main characters in this film—one being Armstrong, the other being the titular, grand lie. Gibney corkscrews between Armstrong and the lie he has kept up over the years, opening up numerous cans of worms. In the face of his deceptions, what does Armstrong’s charity work amount to? Is it okay to dope even if doping is necessary to compete on a level field? Why did officials feverishly test Armstrong with such toxicity over the years?
The Armstrong Lie doesn’t necessarily provide answers to these questions, but it does a masterful work of spoon-feeding even the most uninformed with all they need to formulate a stance.
The staggering moral concerns presented by Gibney also come with occasionally stunning camera work and impeccable song choices (few as they are). Admittedly the movie could do with a little trimming, but otherwise it makes for a great, if not heavier-than-you’d-expect, start to this year’s array of documentaries.