In 2009, filmmaker Alex Gibney set out to document Lance Armstrong’s incredible return to the Tour De France, four years after he retired. When the doping scandal broke, however, Gibney’s film took a different direction and became the story of the man who sold the world on his lies.
Lance Armstrong is a fascinating subject; a cancer survivor who went on to win the Tour De France seven times and inspire countless people around the world, before spectacularly falling from grace when it was finally revealed that his miracle story was based on lies. Alex Gibney started out with the intent to tell the inspiring story of a survivor, but had to put the film aside when the truth about Armstrong finally came out. In picking up the film again, Gibney found himself telling an entirely different story.
The Armstrong Lie is made up of interviews with Armstrong himself, before and after his infamous interview with Oprah, as well as teammates and critics. Gibney weaves together the story of the Armstrong lie, one that the filmmaker himself, by his own admission, utterly believed. What emerges is the story of a charming and charismatic man, whose single minded determination to not only win, but to dominate, led to his downfall.
The film examines the myth that Armstrong created around him, a myth that he ended up believing. Watching the cyclist at the height of his powers and his vehement declarations that he has never used performance enhancing drugs is fascinating; here is a man we know to be a liar, but he so utterly believes his own lie that it is hard to catch him out. Armstrong emerges as ruthless, cunning and manipulative, yet charming and filled with charisma. It is easy to see why the world fell for his lies.
At 122 minutes, there are times when Gibney’s film rambles, and the strong focus on the medical and legal angles of the film mean that the pacing falters from time to time. As well as this, the film does not really tell us anything we don’t already know, other than showing us a little more of the darkness that was going on behind the scenes when Armstrong was at his peak. The film gains traction by interviews with Armstrong himself, five months after his famous interview with Oprah, but this does not help to shake the feeling that we know this story. Gibeny also touches on the idea that cycling is a sport in which many competitors enhance their performance illegally and a full examination of this implied allegation may have made a more compelling documentary.
At the heart of the film, this is the story of a con man who made the world believe his lie, but it is also the story of a world who was so willing to believe the romantic idea that a cancer survivor could dominate a sorting discipline so utterly, and bring himself back from the brink. There is a more interesting story to be told about what goes on behind the scenes of professional cycling, so as it stands Gibney’s film feels as though it was rushed across the finish line to be the first to tell the Armstrong story. An interesting documentary of a ruthless man, but one that tells us little we didn’t already know.