Alex Gibney is among our finest documentarians, known for films such as Taxi to the Dark Side (which won a best-documentary Oscar in 2007), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. His work features impeccable detail and solid investigative work. These attributes are much in evidence in The Armstrong Lie, a meticulous inspection of the world-class bicyclist’s astronomic rise to celebrity followed by a tumbling descent caused by the revelation of his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
But there’s a point in this film when the audience may be tempted to feel that all those facts and quotations and layers upon layers of density reveal more than most of us really want or need to know.
This isn’t the documentary Gibney started out to make. He had almost completed what was called The Road Back, an uplifting film about Armstrong’s amazing win at the 2009 Tour de France, the most grueling sports competition in the world, after beating a death sentence from a 1996 diagnosis of testicular cancer. “I love beating people,” Armstrong said, and went on to win the Tour six more times.
Then along came 2012, when the cyclist began to reveal his long-suspected and emphatically denied relationship with performance-enhancing drugs, starting with a spectacular TV interview with Oprah Winfrey in January.
Gibney felt he had been duped, and decided to continue the story by focusing on Armstrong’s extreme need to win, no matter what the cost.
“He lied to me, straight to my face,” the director says on camera, claiming that he was caught between “the myth makers and the myth busters.”
Aside from footage of the gorgeous mountains ringing the Tour de France route, this is not a pretty movie, cinematically or substantively. Armstrong, whose close-up solo interviews dominate the screen time, comes across as aggressive, challenging, confrontational, defensive, argumentative and always on message. The man behind the Livestrong Foundation, once considered a hero by many, is not portrayed here as a nice guy. And he’s ruthless with those whom he regards as not being on his side.
The most vocal targets of that ruthlessness are Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy, who were among the earliest of Armstrong’s associates to provide evidence of his cheating. Armstrong wasted no time in taking his revenge on them, the Andreus say, pretty much ruining Frankie’s career when Frankie refused to “do what it takes” in terms of using banned drugs and was fired from the team. Betsy, who is interviewed at length here, comes across as strident, but from the framework of the film, it sounds like she had good reason to be.
The Armstrong Lie also spends a good deal of time chronicling Armstrong’s relationship with Italian physician and cycling coach Michele Ferrari, whose controversial training approach for the cyclist following his bout with cancer switched emphasis from muscle (which had deteriorated during the cancer episode) to an aerobic strategy that employed lower bicycle gears, higher cadence and a need to build up the quantity of red blood cells in his body to carry more oxygen - leading to allegations of blood doping.
The remainder of the film is filled out with opinions, insider stories, accusations and explanations from coaches, associates, sports journalists and yet more Armstrong teammates and professional associates, with Armstrong categorically dismissing or ridiculing most of their comments while emphasizing why he needed to use the drugs to stay competitive and maintain his powerful image.
Knowing what we know now, it’s hard to take Armstrong at his word about anything. And more problematic for Gibney’s film, it’s hard to care.
The Armstrong Lie 87 Cast: Documentary with Lance Armstrong, Michele Ferrari, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu Director: Alex Gibney Rating: R for language Running time: 122 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 12/20/2013
Print Headline: The Armstrong Lie