As a teenager, I remember being in the thick of Armstrong-mania. Everyone at school wore the bright yellow Livestrong bracelets and passionately believed in the miraculous abilities of this cancer surviving cyclist. Then, to accuse Lance Armstrong of cheating was blasphemy. Now, Alex Gibney tackles the truth with his latest documentary, The Armstrong Lie (2013).
Gibney’s documentary began in 2009 as a project on Armstrong’s supposedly triumphant return to cycling after a four-year retirement. The piece was also meant to give an inside look into how clean a rider Armstrong was in order to finally dispel the fog of cheating accusations. But Gibney’s original piece was derailed after the legendary cyclist merely finished third. Fast-forward to the now infamous 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, where Armstrong confessed to using performance enhancers and blood doping to win his seven Tour de France trophies. Gibney then re-engaged with his forgotten subject as he felt he deserved the truth, and thus The Armstrong Lie was created.
The film successfully balances insider and popular opinions. Interviews with journalists like David Walsh—one of Armstrong’s biggest detractors—and former teammates George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu, peel back the layers of the cyclist’s myth. While the mixed-media elements of the documentary give a glimpse of the outside world’s perspective. Through both lenses, Armstrong is revealed as an intimidating figure in the cycling world, who ruled with fear and physical power. The all-consuming legend of a brave cancer survivor beating the odds deteriorates under the viewer’s eye.
The Armstrong Lie is a study in hubris. The overweening arrogance of Armstrong and his “urge to dominate” as he puts it, is in every level of the documentary. Even in the footage from 2009 when his lie was secure, Armstrong appears steely eyed and determined with a touch of psychosis. Eventually, Armstrong makes the statement that his deception was a lesser evil because he told only one lie instead of several.
For a man who has unearthed the gritty realities behind the facades of those such as Elliot Spitzer and the Enron executives, being lied to by Lance Armstrong was a smack in the face for Alex Gibney. There is a palpable aggression or bitterness to Gibney’s interjections in the film, as if to say, “but he lied to me.” The personal aspect of the film has skewed the famed documentarian’s objectivity, which resulted in an overlong narrative and sloppy investigation.
For example, though much of the documentary centers on the Tour de France, the specifics of the race are vague. The film also introduces terms such as omertà but fails to provide the definition in full, only implying a code of silence. Gibney also glosses over Armstrong’s relationship with singer, Sheryl Crow, mentioning her briefly when their romance was a significant part of Armstrong’s life and public appeal at the height of his fame. Such gaps give the feeling of an incomplete story.
Gibney vacillates between betrayed narrator and wistful fan. In a way, The Armstrong Lie is Gibney’s story as much if not more-so than Lance Armstrong’s since the film seems to argue that the athlete and his lies belong to the people and not the person. While Gibney offers a compelling narrative for a generation of confused fans, the film itself is rather conflicted about how to feel.