Alex Gibney became one of the most celebrated documentary filmmakers of his era because of his skills as a journalist. Even his lesser movies do a first-rate job of amassing large amounts of information on a subject and presenting that research point by point so that a seemingly unknowable topic becomes crystal clear for his viewers. His ability to distill a news story into a clear narrative is on full display in The Armstrong Lie, a look at the rise and fall of disgraced bicycling champion Lance Armstrong.
The project first began as a record of Armstrong’s 2009 attempted comeback at the Tour de France (he had previously won the event seven times before retiring in 2005). However, the entire movie went in another direction as the truth about his cheating -- as well as his manipulative behavior towards teammates, journalists, and anyone who dared to question his inspiring if totally bogus sporting accomplishments -- finally became a matter of public record.
There is little here about the scandal that hasn’t been covered in detail in many other venues, but what Gibney does is bring everything together so that we get the big picture in one simple package. We learn about Armstrong’s cockiness and confidence as a young cyclist, and that adds to our understanding of how he could live such a gigantic lie in public for more than a decade. The director also explains the mechanics of how he and his team were able to beat the supposedly strict blood tests administered by race officials. As with all of Gibney’s films, you will probably feel smarter when it’s over than you did beforehand.
However, while you may have a clear understanding of the how, what, where, and why of this scandal and its exposure, the film leaves you wondering who the man at the center of this story is. Armstrong is still so self-protective, so unable to doubt himself or question his own actions and beliefs, that he fails spectacularly in his ham-fisted attempts at public apologies -- something underscored by the famous Oprah Winfrey interview, which appears in the documentary. Gibney’s film paints Armstrong as something of a sociopath, who will use and manipulate and discard those around him without an ounce of regret. Because he does not appear capable of genuine contrition, or even self-reflection, the movie has no emotional impact.
That’s disappointing for a director whose best films combine excellent reporting and a multifaceted central figure. His Enron doc gave you an understanding of complex business fraud, along with the satisfaction of hating the people at the top of the company who were responsible for unleashing economic havoc. Additionally, his portrait of disgraced politician Eliot Spitzer threw back the curtain on dirty politics and revealed the fascinatingly complex and somewhat self-aware man who made it his mission to stop crime while being a regular client of hookers. The Armstrong Lie does such a fantastic job of presenting how awful Lance Armstrong is that, after a while, you really don’t want to spend any more time with him -- even in the context of this very well-crafted movie. leave a comment --Perry Seibert