Many have observed that some of the most valuable and exciting documentaries are the ones that start out as one story until the unpredictability of real life takes them in an entirely different direction. Hoop Dreams is the most famous example of this, following two basketball players whose fortunes take divergent, expected turns over the film’s six-year span.
Alex Gibney is probably the most celebrated documentary filmmaker of the past ten years, but The Armstrong Lie may be the first time one of his movies starts out as one thing, namely the comeback of decorated cyclist, cancer survivor and humanitarian Lance Armstrong, and has to alter its trajectory when faced with explosive new information—Armstrong’s loss of all his titles and eventual admission to using performance enhancing drugs.
The film may also be the most personally involved and visible that Gibney has been in any of his documentaries, and this decision goes hand in hand with the fact that the movie also does not try to hide the fact that it is essentially two separate stories being strung together due to circumstance. It opens with Armstrong speaking very candidly with Gibney, seemingly exhausted because, as we’re informed by text at the bottom of the screen, he has just concluded his now famous interview with Oprah where he first publicly admitted to cheating. After tracing Armstrong’s backstory and his rise to becoming the greatest cyclist in history, Gibney focuses heavily on the 2009 Tour de France race and Armstrong’s seemingly earnest attempt to ride the race clean of any illegal performance enhancing methods. Of course, because of what we’ve already learned from the film itself and from the slightest attention paid to Armstrong’s story these past few years, his seeming earnestness is nearly impossible to trust.
Focusing on the 2009 race turned out to be a stroke of genius, or just pure luck, because it was a year that almost perfectly encapsulates the Armstrong saga. We see him train, we hear him insist that he wants to do everything the right way, riding clean and giving everything he’s got to compete with the best in the world. We also see his brashness, the qualities in his personality that explain why he became the best cyclist in the PED-addled era he competed in, as well as why he cheated in the first place and continued to lie about his innocence for far longer than most others would. By all signs, about which it must be restated that we’ve come to learn to be ever skeptical, Armstrong seemed to genuinely try to ride clean, but when he couldn’t compete at the level he was used to, it’s now widely known that he doped, causing many to question why he would bother to try to mount the comeback in the first place.
Gibney’s work is routinely superb. He has been lauded for not only the outstanding quality of his documentaries in the past decade, but also the sheer quantity. It’s as if a fabulous documentarian like Errol Morris had the prolific output of Woody Allen, releasing one or two terrific films each year. Already this year Gibney’s We Steal Secrets offered a fascinating look at Julian Assange and Wikileaks. If he’s to be compared to Woody Allen, The Armstrong Lie may be his Match Point; it feels like a bit of a departure compared to his previous work, but it’s probably more aptly described as a progression towards a deeper understanding of the subjectivity of story.
It’s clear that Gibney felt compromised in his examination of Lance Armstrong’s career—he says as much in the narration. There’s a pivotal segment of the film where he conveys just how easily it is to be swept up by the legitimately inspirational story of Lance Armstrong. We see and hear about his cancer recovery, his commitment to becoming stronger and better than he was before his diagnosis, and the effect that this story has become a source of hope for millions of people worldwide. Scandal or not, this part of his life is genuinely remarkable.
Gibney’s ability to deeply examine the entirety of Armstrong’s story, contradictions and all, is what makes this such a truly special film. It becomes more and more apparent the extent to which Armstrong perpetrated this big lie, in addition to the governing bodies and fellow cyclists exposed over the course of the film. The structure of this is impressive, as we are able to compare Armstrong’s behavior as a young cyclist to his more polished and rehearsed demeanor as a seasoned interview veteran. This gives us slightly more insight into seeing both the ways he has stayed the same—he remains cocky, manipulative and compelling as ever—as well as the ways he has changed to preserve the image of the man behind Livestrong. We’re left with the realization that it’s very easy for those in power to convince the public to believe in a beautiful lie rather than face the ugly truth in front of their noses.
On top of all this, The Armstrong Lie moves along nicely, and features some fantastic cycling footage. Like the best sports movies, documentary or fictional, it captures the romanticism and genuine beauty of the sport. Interviews with its various enthusiasts make the love for cycling contagious to the audience; the subjects are passionate in their opinions on Armstrong himself, but all this passion seems to come from the same source, an abiding love for the sport. Gibney is particularly adept at shooting the heck out of distinct worlds so that we feel completely immersed in them. For all the endemic institutional problems, the world of cycling comes off as a gorgeous sport worth salvaging from the hands of those who don’t seem to care about permanently tarnishing its legacy.
By embracing contradictions and examining the making of a lie, The Armstrong Lie demonstrates how elusive the truth can be even when the facts are known about a widely recognized figure.