By Daniel Lammin
9th March 2014

When Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney decided to make a film about champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, he had a clear goal in mind - cover Armstrong's return to the sport after retirement with his Tour de France attempt in 2009. With the tour covered and the film in the can, Gibney thought he was making a film about a returning hero. But when Armstrong admitted to years of doping and using performance enhancers, the documentary took an unexpected and far more sinister turn. Furious at being deceived and lied to, Gibney returned to Armstrong and confronted him about the lie he had so perfectly orchestrated for over a decade.

The result is 'The Armstrong Lie', Gibney's latest documentary after last year's incredible 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks'. The film combines documentary footage of the 2009 tour, archival footage spanning Armstrong's career and captivating interviews from many of the parties involved, but most distinctive of all is the presence of Gibney himself. For the first time, he places himself as a character in the narrative in the form of a narrator. It's a given in documentary filmmaking that the filmmaker is the eye through which we view the story, but Gibney making this a significant feature allows the film to be more personal and its intentions clearer. An artist deceived by his subject, he places Armstrong on trial, not just for the lies and deception but his shattering of the faith his fans had placed in him and the persona of a cancer sufferer who defeated the odds and did the impossible. Gibney and the film are honest in a way that Armstrong never entirely is.


Armstrong himself is a fascinating and infuriating subject, both the tragic hero crippled by his own hubris and the maniacal villain driven by a desire to hunt and destroy his enemies. The film could have geared itself to vilify or exonerate Armstrong, but chooses to weigh in on neither, and smartly so. Armstrong is already walking that line, and it's up to us to decide what we think of his actions. The ease with which he blatantly lies in the earlier footage cannot be ignored when he opens up about his doping, and there's always the sneaking suspicion (one that Gibney voices himself) that he still isn't being honest. The other interviewees, which include Armstrong's critics, teammates and coconspirators, don't hold back in expressing their pain and anger at being so carefully manipulated by the champion, and how his actions have caused irreparable damage to the sport of cycling, something Armstrong himself seems incapable of comprehending.

On a technical level, 'The Armstrong Lie' is a solid documentary work, but not as inventive or extraordinary as some others that we've seen of late, such as 'The Imposter', 'Blackfish' or Gibney's own 'We Steal Secrets'. The rhythm of the film is a bit off, never really building towards a significant climax. It seems a tad too long, and a bit too much time is devoted to the 2009 tour, so the build in the film is hampered by a slower third act. This is understandable, as this section is constructed from the material Gibney had shot for the original documentary, but placing it earlier might have helped alleviated any rhythmic problems. The editing is also less inventive, but again, the material probably doesn't offer much scope for inventiveness. Cumulatively the documentary certainly packs a punch, and the scale of the lie itself is quite overwhelming. It's still one of the better examples of documentary filmmaking, but the film itself doesn't leave as strong a lasting impression as it could have.

Armstrong is a fascinating and infuriating subject, both the tragic hero crippled by his own hubris and the maniacal villain driven by a desire to hunt and destroy his enemies.

In the end, it is the lie itself more so than the doping that we hold against Lance Armstrong, and the staggering scale of it. Armstrong is a man driven by the desire to be the best at any price, and 'The Armstrong Lie' pulls back for us to see the consequences of his ambition. There is an anger to this film, a need to understand why, for the fallen idol to explain himself and his actions and to see the truth behind his deceptive charm and charismatic smile. While it might not stand up as strong technically against other recent documentaries, it still has tremendous power and intrigue, and features one hell of a villain. We may not be able to accept the man at the centre of the lie by the end of the film, but we at least have a better understanding of just what damage his actions have caused.

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