'The Armstrong Lie' (R)
Alex Gibson's documentary explores the elusive nature of truth.
The Armstrong Lie opens with an interview conducted by Oprah Winfrey in January . “I didn’t live a lot of lies,” says the disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong. “I just lived one big one.” That’s one way of rationalizing Armstrong’s repeated claims that he did not use performance-enhancing drugs during his record-setting seven consecutive Tour de France victories from 1999-2005.
But Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) doesn’t let him off the hook that easily. The filmmaker originally set out to make a film about Armstrong’s comeback in 2009, when he returned to cycling after miraculously conquering the testicular cancer that nearly killed him. Shooting continued through 2011, with Armstrong competing in two Tour de Frances and Gibney’s cameras capturing the action. The movie was practically complete when a U.S. criminal inquiry and an investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency waylaid the film.
By the time Armstrong came clean and admitted everything, Gibney suddenly had a radically different movie — and he became part of it. Like millions of people around the world, Gibney believed Armstrong — he wanted to believe him — because his story was so astounding and inspiring. So he switched gears from biographer to investigator. A big chunk of The Armstrong Lie details exactly how Armstrong was able to get away with it — blood transfusions, testosterone, hormones, cortisone shots — while the world watched. Using interviews with his former teammates and coaches, the film paints an unflattering portrait of a sport in which practically everyone cheats: It’s the only way possible to stay competitive (Alberto Contador, the Spanish cyclist who defeated Armstrong in the 2009 Tour de France, was himself later busted for doping).
The movie also reveals how some members of the media played along, choosing to perpetuate the myth because it was a better story. And Armstrong himself played an aggressive role in maintaining his secret, winning a $1.5 million settlement to stop the U.S. publication of a French book that collected circumstantial evidence about his illegal tactics.
The Armstrong Lie gives you an unusual perspective on the madness of the Tour de France competitions, with news crews and cars shadowing bicyclists as they navigate some of the hardest courses in the world, and it teaches you a lot about the sport (teammates would ride in front of Armstrong to act as a buffer between him and the wind so he could ride longer).
Gibney even convinced Armstrong to sit down for one final interview in May. In it, he comes off as somewhat contrite but also victimized, as if he were being single out for something everyone does. Frankie Andreu, one of Armstrong’s former teammates, probably sums it up best: “Did Lance win it according to the rules of the time? Yes. But did Lance win it according to the rules? No.”
Writer-director: Alex Gibney.
Producers: Frank Marshall, Matt Tolmach, Alex Gibney.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Nov. 22 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Delray, Shadowood.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney specializes in documentaries on big, complicated subjects: corporate corruption (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), politics (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), military torture (Taxi to the Dark Side). A big part of the reason he decided to work on a film about Lance Armstrong is that for once, he’d have a smaller, intimate focus.
“That was a big part of the appeal,” Gibney said during a recent visit to Miami to promote the film. “This was something different for me. I’m a sports fan, and the opportunity to follow one of the greatest athletes in the world as he pursued a comeback was compelling. And it also wasn’t about looking back at a scandal, like most of my films. It was filming something in real time, which attracted me.”
Producer Frank Marshall (The Sixth Sense, Empire of the Sun, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) had been in talks with Armstrong about adapting his post-cancer memoir It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life into a feature film, but the project stalled. When Armstrong decided to return to the sport in 2008, Marshall came up with the idea of a documentary and recommended Gibney.
“He was very guarded with me at first,” Gibney says about his initial sit-down with Armstrong in Austin. “I didn’t know a lot about cycling prior to starting this, and I decided to be honest with him and told him I didn’t know the sport but I was going to learn. I think he was OK with that because it was honest.”
Although Gibney was familiar with the doping rumors surrounding Armstrong and had suspicions about the past, he says he believed Armstrong was racing clean when filming began in 2009. He shot the film over the next two years and edited it with Matt Damon serving as narrator. But just as the finishing touches were being put on, a federal investigation was launched and everything changed.
“I went through a period of denial at first,” Gibney says. “I already had stuff in the film about him doping in the past, and I hoped Armstrong would beat these new allegations away the way he had done in the past and we could just put some title cards at the end of the film. But then we started hearing things like conspiracy and drug trafficking and tax evasion, and I realized the film we had made was insufficient to what was going on.”
Backed by Sony Pictures Classics, Gibney completely reworked the movie, inserting himself into the story to help explain how and why Armstrong got away with what he did for so long.
“To understand the anatomy of the lie, I had to look at what I had shot before and the role I played in it,” he says. “Part of the reason we get fooled is that we want to be fooled. We root for athletes because they stand in for us in some way. That’s what Lance brought out to people: a reason to hope. He was a miracle made real. You can cheat death and you can be better. You have to exercise your will and you can achieve things. He became a hugely important symbol for a lot of people. That was his blessing and, ultimately, also his curse.”
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