Alex Gibney continues his string of documentaries about the hubris that invites disaster with “The Armstrong Lie,” but the result falls far short of the impact of such earlier efforts as “Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room” and “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” to name only two of his superior efforts. The fundamental problem is that bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace has been covered so thoroughly in the media that unless one brings something really new to the table, the effect is bound to feel like a retread. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t find a way to make his version significantly more compelling than the pieces one’s already likely to have seen on “60 Minutes.” This is the first Gibney film that seems superfluous.
Of course, it’s not the picture Gibney set out to make. His original intention was just to document Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France in 2009—an attempt to score an eighth championship in the grueling event after winning it a recording-breaking seven times between 1999 and 2005—and this after undergoing treatment for testicular cancer. The intent was, it was hoped, to record an amazing comeback after a three-year retirement that had seen charges of doping swirl around the cyclist and might prove them to be unfounded.
A good deal of the footage of “The Armstrong Lie” is of that 2009 race, where Armstrong ultimately managed to come in third, with his Astana teammate Alberto Contador taking first place. But though the race was a triumph of sorts, it reopened the controversy over whether he had taken performance-enhancing measures in his earlier career, something he strenuously denies to everyone, including Gibney. The result was a series of investigations beginning in 2010 that eventually resulted in the notorious Oprah Winfrey interview of January, 2013, in which he finally admitted the truth about his earlier misdeeds while stoutly maintaining that in 2009 he had ridden a clean race. He was compelled to step down from the Livestrong Foundation he founded to assist cancer survivors. He has also been stripped of all his Tour titles and faces legal action by sponsors anxious to recover moneys they’d paid him. And yet despite his admissions to Winfrey (and later, to Gibney in footage included here) he remains coolly defensive about his actions, arguing that they have to be viewed within the context of standard practice in the sport at the time. His apologies are always hedged in by a wall of self-justification, and regularly expressed in a calmly dispassionate tone that that seems as robotic as his performances as a champion.
The revelations necessarily altered Gibney’s cinematic plan, of course, compelling him to situate the race footage he’d shot—quite beautifully, it should be noted—against the larger story of Armstrong’s life and ultimate disgrace. He conducted not only further interviews with Armstrong but sessions with Michele Ferrari, the Italian physician who specialized in doping science, and the cyclist’s erstwhile colleagues, including Frankie Andreu, who, along with his wife Betsy, became primary accusers against him. The portrait that emerges is of a man who from his youth was consumed with a belief that winning is everything and the ends justify the means. Still, there remains the unsettling reality, as the film briefly notes, that Contador, who beat Armstrong in 2009, is also under suspicion of doping.
The question Gibney raises most emphatically, however, isn’t just why Armstrong used prohibited means to win, but why he decided to return to racing in 2009 after a three-year absence, even though doing so would inevitably resuscitate charges against him that by then were pretty much buried. And the answer, which applies equally to the boardroom geniuses at Enron and Julian Assange at WikiLeaks, lies in a supreme form of arrogance which assumes invincibility. Ironically, therefore, Gibney’s Armstrong project—intended as a departure from his usual theme—transformed itself into yet another variant of it.
“The Armstrong Lie” is a good presentation of the rise and fall of an athlete whose denials of wrongdoing were almost as strong as his legs, and who has come to stand as a cautionary figure for others who might aspire to similar accomplishments. But it’s impossible to ignore that most of what it contains has been related elsewhere, in more succinct but equally effective form. One can understand Gibney’s fascination with fleshing out the subject after his project took such a sharp turn, but at over two hours the result becomes about as exhausting as a day in the Tour de France itself. It does, however, provide manifest evidence of how unattractive a person Lance Armstrong really is—while offering abundant proof that those who surrounded him weren’t much better.
All the more reason kids should be advised that putting sports figures on pedestals is always a bad idea.