The Armstrong Lie
Directed by Alex Gibney
In 2009, Alex Gibney was hired to make a film about Lance Armstrong’s comeback to cycling. The project was shelved when the doping scandal erupted, and re-opened after Armstrong’s confession. The Armstrong Lie picks up in 2013 and presents a riveting, insider's view of the unraveling of one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of sports. As Lance Armstrong says himself, “I didn’t live a lot of lies, but I lived one big one.”
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★★★½ review by Adam Cook on Letterboxd
Watching this only a day after Alex Holmes’ Lance Armstrong expose probably does a disservice to both documentaries as they unsurprisingly cover so much of the same ground. However, where The Armstrong Lie trumps Stop at Nothing is the coup of featuring a candid-ish interview with the men at the centre of the scandal - both Armstrong and his doping doctor, Michele Ferrari.
Alex Gibney’s revealing portrait originally began as a documentary following Armstrong’s return from retirement but, fortuitously for the filmmaker and audience, dramatically changed when he finally admitted to his career-long cheating during the making of the film. It’s the sort of revelation a documentarian must dream of - a career-making story literally landing in his lap. It is a revelation that also provides an interesting friction to this story as Gibney himself felt betrayed by the lie that he had willingly swallowed until Armstrong’s confession.
Just like Stop at Nothing, the documentary provides a potted history of Armstrong’s triumphs and escalating lies whilst exploring the widespread problems in a corrupt sport. Over a decade of competition the doped-up riders turned one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events into the Tour de Farce with Armstrong being its poster boy and chief villain. Although you could say he was simply keeping up with the other artificially enhanced competitors, Armstrong was an integral part in the charade whilst ruthlessly ruining the lives of those who challenged his achievements.
Even though Armstrong remains an elusive figure, even after supposedly coming clean, it is interesting to hear the man speak about a scandal that may well make him the most infamous figure in all of sport. But there is the sense that Gibney still fails to raise anything new from either the Oprah interview or the miles of column inches written about Armstrong’s spectacular fall from grace.
Engaging and sporadically illuminating, The Armstrong Lie is arguably the best documentary on the subject but it still isn’t quite definitive.
★★★½ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd
Another solid but unexceptional documentary from America's reigning (and almost unsettlingly prolific) king of solid but unexceptional documentaries. There are no bombshells here, no smoking gun that was missing from Oprah's interview, but in some ways the lingering questions and ambiguities are more interesting anyway. Now that Armstrong has admitted to cheating through all seven of his Tour de France victories, why continue to lie (if it is indeed a lie) about his comeback, which he claims he ran clean even though tests suggest otherwise? Why continue to insist a hospital conversation about drugs never took place when the content of the conversation, and the testimony given against him, was absolutely true?
Gibney argues that the attitude that helped Armstrong triumph over cancer (win at all costs, because losing means death) then helped him win seven Tours, and then destroyed him, because he couldn't quit, and he couldn't just admit he'd lied, he had to defend his lie and attack his accusers with a ferocity that is basically unforgivable no matter how many tens of millions of dollars he gave to charity. But there again are more fascinating questions: Armstrong cheated, lied, attacked, ruined a few people's careers, maybe even a couple lives. In the process he also saved, I dunno, hundreds or even thousands of lives with the money he raised for cancer research. How much of the good excuses how much of the bad?
The movie isn't really about that (it is, if we're being totally honest, about salvaging the really great footage that Gibney had shot of Armstrong on his 2009 comeback and then had to abandon because the controversy around his doping just never went away for four years). But Gibney still offer plenty of space to dwell on these very interesting ideas.
★★★½ review by Jimbo on Letterboxd
A fleshing out of the story, rather than revealing anything controversial we didn't already know (Armstrong had been pushed to do that all by himself), this documentary still feels as though it's somewhat sympathetic to one of the biggest cheats sport in general has ever witnessed (or caught, at any rate).
Some day there will be a documentary that will see through the murk and explain the many grey areas surrounding road cycling as a sport in the late 90s and early 00s, this definitely isn't it and feels like it misses the mark on a few important players in this bubble of deception.
It's not the fact that he cheated that makes me angry, it's the fact he was driven to take it to another level and was allowed to get away with it by a corrupt hierarchy and colleagues that were willing to turn a blind eye and ride his lycra tails to the top. It's still unclear what really led to Armstrong returning and the house of cards collapsing.
Regardless, what this films reinforces is that the arrogance of the man himself is truly breathtaking, I'm convinced he stills thinks he did nothing wrong. You can see it in his eyes when talking to his pal the filmmaker, a man not ready to condemn the actions of Armstrong, the ruthless, (potentially sociopathic) egomaniac, where Gibney could criticise and denounce, he practically lets Lance cycle off in to the sunset. The fact he raised millions for a worthy cause is an interesting counterpoint -- how much good do you have to do to balance all of the bad?
“People will forgive and forget and move on... I don’t know what people will think in 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Will the record books still be blank? Or will they look at it in the context that it is and say ‘Yeah, he won the Tour de France seven times’.” -- He still doesn't think he did anything wrong......
★★★★ review by Nathan Rabin on Letterboxd
I agree with my colleague Scott that the filmmaking is no great shakes and Gibney's stance is a little disingenuous (how could Armstrong have lied to ME?) but holy fuck is this a riveting story and holy fuck is Armstrong a fascinating sociopath. Utterly, utterly absorbing stuff.
★★★★★ review by Jason Pettus on Letterboxd
I've seen a lot of other people describe this 2013 documentary by the otherwise greatly admired Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Freakonomics) as merely pedestrian, a minor film that doesn't especially shine and sheds no new light on its subject matter, and I would have to agree with all that; but as someone who doesn't follow sports and didn't know the details of Lance Armstrong's all-consuming mental illness and subsequent massive cover-up of said illness, I found this film absolutely riveting anyway, a haunting and chilling portrait of runaway emotional sickness and a guy who was treated as one of the greatest heroes in history because of it. Jaw-dropping from the sheer amount of effort that went into Armstrong hiding his drug use for so many years, audacious in how brazenly he crowed in public about being clean at the same time, and infuriating at how little he continues to think he did anything wrong, I ran the full gamut of emotions while watching this tight talking-heads-style doc; although admittedly the ideal way to see this was like I did, by not knowing a single thing about Armstrong beforehand besides "he used to be a famous athlete who turned out to be a lying douchebag," and that knowing any more than this will likely diminish the amount of enjoyment you yourself will get out of this. Still strongly recommended, if for nothing else the flabbergasting portrayal of unchecked, untreated mental illness it displays in its subject.
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