The Armstrong Lie (London Film Festival 2013)
Firstly, it’s worth noting I’m not a cycling aficionad; in a similar admission that introduced my Rush review, I never even learned to ride a bike. Secondly, my knowledge of the Lance Armstrong doping incident is fairly middling – perhaps a bit more than average as I watched the first 20 minutes of his Oprah interview.
My prior knowledge is relevant as much of what I found gripping in The Armstrong Lie will have already been eaten up by the sport’s staunchest fans. Armstrong’s conspiracy and long-awaited comeuppance is still fascinating, both in sporting terms and sheer psychological complexity – but even I was familiar with large chunks of the material. Similarly, I’m not sure how viewers will share my amusement at the complex racing tactics surrounding the Tour de France.
However, that’s not to say Armstrong experts won’t find anything new in The Armstrong Lie. Part of its strength is the sheer wealth of material, much of which is personal to director Alex Gibney, as opposed to just scouring archives. The multi-angle approach is also refreshing, with agendas quashed by the vast number of interviews and supporting footage. In short, this isn’t a one-on-one interview with Oprah, but a far wider portrait.
Gibney already completed a documentary about Armstrong’s 2009 comeback, which praised the cancer survivor’s fairytale return to the Tour de France podium – once again without the use of drugs, said Armstrong at the time. Unsurprisingly, the revelation threw a spanner into the documentary’s wheels, with The Armstrong Lie emerging as a product from a director who felt cheated. In fact, Armstrong is coerced into delivering exclusive interviews that Gibney feels are personally “owed”.
The doping scandal is fascinating in itself, as a closeted criminal circle that involved a surprisingly large number of sports associates in on the secret. Past footage features some interviewees all but revealing the inner workings, particularly Armstrong’s trainer, Michele Ferrari, whose scientific arrogance mimics a mad scientist battling against human limitations.
I could go further by describing the frequent denials, blackmail incidents and failed lawsuits, all of which make Armstrong seems like a psychopath with retrospective knowledge. However, that would turn this review into an overview of the case. Gibney’s take is smart and riveting through deft editing, rarely lingering on a point for too long because another close subject has a counterargument.
Ultimately, The Armstrong Lie isn’t about doping, but about power. I’m sure at least 70% of reviews will mention that line, seeing as it’s clearly enunciated in the film and was followed by other critics scribbling in their notepads. At one point, the cyclist informs a coach, “You’re not my dad.”
However, that’s the crux of Gibney’s documentary, with drugs simply being the MacGuffin – and The Armstrong Lie is an admiral attempt to escape Armstrong’s alluring fairytale appeal.
The Armstrong Lie is part of the London Film Festival’s “Documentary Competition” strand. Screening information can be found here.
United States of America
122 mins approx