It’s hardly news that title-stripped cyclist Lance Armstrong broke anti-doping rules for years and additionally betrayed fans by repeatedly, insistently denying wrongdoing. But while lacking in revelations, “The Armstrong Lie,” Alex Gibney’s documentary about the dope and glory, is informative, absorbing viewing.
Known for making conventionally structured but perceptively presented investigative films about bright, ambitious people destroyed by hubris (New York politician Eliot Spitzer and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange among them), Gibney starts out more gently this time.
Hired to cover Lance Armstrong as the athlete comes out of retirement and competes in the 2009 Tour de France race, Gibney shoots what looks like a friendly profile.
But the doping charges soon hit, Armstrong loses his previous Tour de France titles, and, in a January 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, confesses to using banned substances. Gibney, himself a disappointed fan, shoots tougher footage and combines it with the earlier material. The result is a before-and-after mix of interviews, cycling footage, and scientific factoids chronicling Armstrong’s ascent and downfall. In the brighter arena, Gibney revisits Armstrong’s exhausting, successful battle against metastasized cancer and his foundation supporting cancer survivors. A recovered Armstrong went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.
Gibney also, however, introduces Dr. Michele Ferrari, a charismatic sleazeball and covert doping guru of sorts. We hear from sports journalists about rottenness in the Tour de France. Former cohorts, including ex-teammate Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, testify against Armstrong.
A picture emerges of former team leader Armstrong as a liar and bully obsessed with winning, who enforced a code of silence about doping.
As he blends his softer material with the more probing stuff, Gibney winds up with a story that sometimes seems woven from incompatible cloths. Armstrong, meanwhile, who does lots of gazing into the camera and lying, doesn’t help things by not being forthcoming.
But Gibney is a solid journalist with a contagious interest in the personalities of mighty folk who fall. Overall, his film is an insightful and engrossing look at the positive and shadier aspects of Armstrong, the competitive gene and the sport of cycling.
Not often do you get a detailed lesson in how performance-enhancing drugs work, or how transfusions allow users to evade detection. Once, we learn, teammates stopped their bus and, shielded by tinted windows, underwent transfusions, practically under the noses of fans.
Gibney also considers why Armstrong, in 2009, raced again — a decision that likely triggered his undoing. The filmmaker cites ego, arrogance and addiction to celebrity as probable reasons.
Armstrong, for anyone wondering, took third place in 2009, losing to Alberto Contador. (Contador, described as a young Armstrong, was himself convicted of doping.) Gorgeous cinematography paints cycling and the Tour de France as feats of beauty and grandeur. Those pictures contrast affectingly with the sad realities personified by Armstrong and company.
The Armstrong Lie
With Lance Armstrong, Alex Gibney, Michele Ferrari, David Walsh
Written and directed by Alex Gibney
Running time 2 hours, 3 minutes