The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie
Directed by Alex Gibney
In UK Cinemas January 31st, 2014

by Ruth Thomson

Lance Armstrong: icon, survivor, champion, cheat, liar. The seven time Tour de France winner and most celebrated cyclist of all time finally admitted to having used illegal substances throughout his career after years of vociferous denial in January 2013 on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney had already begun filming in 2009 to make what he anticipated would be a relatively warm profile of the great champion when Armstrong’s final downfall began: he was stripped of all his titles and banned from competitive cycling for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 2012. So the film Gibney has ended up with was not what he first set out to make. He sets this up from the start, explaining that his initial subject was to be Armstrong’s great comeback in 2009, four years after he’d retired from the sport. Now titled The Armstrong Lie (after one of the early finger pointing articles in the French press) the documentary prominently features two particular interviews with Lance – one earlier this year post admission, and the other, with a dramatic dark backdrop and much cockier body language, from four years ago in which he looks directly into the camera and repeatedly lies.

The premise that if it wasn’t for his comeback attempt he’d have gotten away with it, grabs your attention from the start as Gibney goes back over the early days of the story: Armstrong’s triumph over testicular cancer and dominance of the sport from 1999-2005. Contributors include cycling experts such as David Walsh who pursued the truth throughout Armstrong’s career, and many of his former teammates – all of whom doped. What comes to the fore is not just the widespread use of drugs throughout the sport at this time – it certainly seems to have been ubiquitous – but Armstrong’s power and control over his colleagues. His certainty that he would never be caught seems to have increased as his fame, sponsorship deals, and charitable foundation spread. No matter your moral perspective on his use of drugs, what is tougher to take is his use of his status as a cancer survivor and philanthropist to underpin all of these denials.

Gibney’s film gives an illuminating insight into the world of pro cycling (from doping scandals to team tactics) and conjures up the frenetic excitement of Le Tour – roadside fans shouting, cheering and chasing their idols as they weave through the mountains of Europe. There are several stunning landscapes as the long mass of Lycra whizzes through fields of sunflowers, over bridges, and through Alpine villages. But the man at the centre of the story, and his relationship with Gibney (who admits to being taken in) are on shakier ground – how successful can a documentary be if we all know the subject has been lying from the start? Gibney’s slight over infatuation is also apparent in the indulgent length (over 2 hours) and the fact that there is a certain amount of repetition.

Regardless it’s a compelling enough story, and a dramatic enough downfall, to be a gripping watch.

One Response to “The Armstrong Lie”

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