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.