Article By: Dan Clark
Lance Armstrong’s story was one of the closest things we ever got to a real life superhero origin—a man overcoming a death sentence to rule one of the most grueling sporting events in human history. His iconic status was so large that acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney was set to make a film that would cover his comeback to the Tour De France in 2009. Plans changed when Armstrong finally admitted to the long speculated rumors that he used sporting enhancement drugs during his championship run. Now a few years after that revelation Gibney is set to finish his documentary with a different spin; the film that was once designed to celebrate the return of a hero has transformed into a striking depiction of a tremendous fall from grace.
In many ways Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie is a therapeutic study of all the different facets to this story. To Gibney’s credit he never treats the film as a vindictive tool to get back at the man who lied straight to his face for over a year. It would be easy to simply dismiss Armstrong as this demonic figure that deserves nothing more than a barrage of visceral diatribes to be thrown his way. If you were to look at the entirety of the situation with a touch of rationalism you would have to agree a lot of good came from what Armstrong did. That is what Gibney undoubtedly does. Although he may fall under the Armstrong influence at times, he looks at every angle intimately and impartially.
Gibney brings the story full circle by starting from the beginning to answer that all important question of why. Not only why did Armstrong do it, but why he got away with it for so long. Here we see Armstrong’s early life; from his childhood growing up without a father, to his rise in the cycling world, to his diagnosis of testicular cancer. No matter what you may think of Armstrong now you cannot help but be inspired by the way he was able to overcome the ravenous nature of his disease.
At times Gibney slips into admiration mode as well. Most of the original framework of the comeback documentary is still here, and at times it feels like we are watching that exact documentary. One that is less interested in the lie, and more interested in seeing if the old guy can do it again—as if Gibney (like Armstrong) is unwilling to completely let go of the fabricated tale. Those moments of celebration have a false importance to them as it is difficult to have invested interest in Armstrong’s plight to return to form.
Right from the start Armstrong is as a fascinating presence. He is the constant competitor always trying to rule whatever situation he is in, including this documentary. As is noted in the film his greatest gift may not be his cycling ability, but his talent in storytelling. When anyone is daring enough to challenge him he answers with such a fierce conviction it is hard to not buy into what he is saying even after you know the truth.
What is more unnerving than the lie are the lengths Armstrong went to protect it. He actively ruined the lives of countless people to stop the truth from getting out. Two of those victims were Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy. Both testified in a deposition that they were there when Armstrong admitted in using sporting enhancement drugs. Seeing both interviewed on-screen provided face to how powerful Armstrong was in controlling this story.
That control is still evident in Gibney’s final interview with Armstrong that is peppered throughout the film. Though he admits to his wrong doing, you cannot help by feel there is more still not being told. Gibney doesn’t push as much as you would hope, and there is not a deeper revelation some might be hoping for.
There is a deeper look into what and how Armstrong did what he did, and how the simple act of timing may have aided in Armstrong getting away with it. Before Armstrong’s first Tour win the sport of cycling was already dealing with endless controversy, and it needed something to gain credibility with fans. Armstrong’s story gave them just that. So the question becomes who is really guilty in allowing this lie to occur.
Gibney intelligently does not solely lay blame at the feet of Armstrong or the heads of cycling. A lie this big needs a lot of help, and that help came in droves. Small touches, like showing clips of well-respected members of the media fully supporting Armstrong’s ‘fight’ against the naysayers, made it clear that when a lie is beautiful enough society does everything it can to protect.
Part of the reason many were so willing to believe The Armstrong Lie is due to the enormous amount of good it did. Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised for cancer research as a direct result of Lance Armstrong. ‘Livestrong’ became a mantra that inspired billions of people across the globe. Do those accomplishments solely make the lie hurt even more, or do they provide a softening blow of justification? Gibney ‘s The Armstrong Lie is rightfully not interested in providing a complete answer to that question, instead it is more concerned with discovering the motivations of why it happened and why we all let it happen.