The Armstrong Lie Movie Review
This biographical documentary about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong feels eerily gentle compared to filmmaker Alex Gibney's recent films, the WikiLeaks doc We Steal Secrets and the Catholic priest expose Mea Maxima Culpa. But then it was originally conceived as a celebration of Armstrong's comeback at the 2009 Tour de France, which is still at the heart of the film.
It was during this comeback that Armstrong's stellar image started to slip, with old rivalries and gurgling rumours surging to the surface. Gibney intercuts interviews he shot at the time with more recent chats, including a conversation immediately after Armstrong taped his notorious confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey. So we vividly see Armstrong's two-faced personality. Along the way, Gibney also traces the cyclist's remarkable rise to fame, his near death from cancer and the secret doping system he used to win the Tour de France seven times from 1999 to 2005. Armstrong's rationale is that everyone else was doing the same thing, so it was actually a level playing field.
Only of course it wasn't, because many cyclists remained clean and were edged out of the winning position as a result. Gibney also talks to a wide variety of experts, journalists and fellow riders who discuss the sport's culture of omerta (a mafia-style code of honour). From the news reports, we already know about the many years of deception, which is why society no longer holds professional athletes to such high, clean standards. It's clearly more about the money now than the human achievement. And there's so much cash to be made that competitors will break every rule there is if they think they'll get away with it.
What makes this film worth a look is Gibney's astonishing access to Armstrong himself. In 2009, he virtually lived with Armstrong as he prepared for and raced the Tour de France, so there's a connection between the two men that brings out startling insight. But the focus on the 2009 event also tilts the film out of balance, because Gibney now knows that he was being lied to at the time. Gibney skilfully juxtaposes interviews conducted with Armstrong throughout his career to make this clear. But we only learn about the lies, not the truth.