As viewers take in “The Armstrong Lie,” a compelling and disturbing documentary of Lance Armstrong that’s written, directed and narrated by Alex Gibney, one has to ask if it is really about one lie or hundreds of lies about one subject.
The film bombards viewers for two hours with images of Armstrong as he goes through his life as a fiery competitor with a large chip on his shoulder; as a cancer survivor who makes an unreal return to competitive cycling and enjoys unprecedented success, to a man cornered by his own lies who must confess his shortcomings as a cheater and a doper after he no longer can escape the truth.
Gibney has won many awards in his directing career, including an Oscar at the 2008 Academy Awards for Best Documentary — Features, with “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and won a Primetime Emmy in 2013 for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking with “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.”
“The Armstrong Lie” is a film that not only tells a story about doping and cycling, but also exposes a man who thought he was invulnerable because of the power and conviction he could use to dominate his opponents on and off the racing circuit.
“The Armstrong Lie” gives viewers inside access to Armstrong from 2008 to 2013 as Gibney began the project to chronicle Armstrong’s comeback after a three-year self-imposed retirement from competitive cycling.
The movie was nearly complete before Armstrong did an interview in January 2013 with Oprah Winfrey in which he admitted to doping during his racing career.
Five months after the Winfrey interview, Gibney tells the viewers that Armstrong tried to dominate his documentary by lying throughout the filming during 2009. Gibney then told Armstrong he owed Gibney an explanation — on camera — which Armstrong agreed to.
It’s at that point that Armstrong talks about being a fighter and wanting to protect himself, the sport, his team and his foundation and says he was prepared to say anything to do that.
Armstrong also seems to take some pride in the fact that he’s coming clean, but in reality the viewer never knows for sure when Armstrong is telling the truth, as he’s shown lying so many times throughout the film.
“To call somebody a cheater, a fraud, a loser, ... to call them that has to be, and I repeat, has to be followed up with extraordinary proof,” Armstrong said in 2005.
In the interview with Winfrey, he admits to taking erythropoietin — or EPO — blood transfusions and other banned substances during all seven Tour de France victories.
How dirty had the sport of professional cycling become at the level Armstrong was involved? Since his seven Tour de France victories, all but one cyclist who stood on the podium with Armstrong were implicated in doping scandals.
A question Gibney asks himself several times in the film is why Armstrong would attempt this final comeback and just what he was thinking. Gibney allows the viewers to answer those questions themselves through interviews with writers who also cover the comeback.
There are several race sequences that display the power and speed of the racers in the Tour de France. These glimmers inside the actual races are thrilling on many levels as you get to see how close the partying crowd comes to the cyclists and how precarious even the passing of water bottles to the racers from moving vehicles can be.
The documentary may be confusing at times to those who don’t understand professional cycling and the different stages of racing in the Tour de France. There’s a lot of implied knowledge of the sport as well as a tendency to jump between the eras that mark Armstrong’s career.
Throughout the documentary, Gibney goes back and forth between the comeback years and Armstrong’s time after returning from his testicular cancer treatment and brain surgery in 1996. There also are many sequences interjected from his Tour de France victories when he vehemently denies taking any illegal drugs in his career.
In the film, you hear former teammate Floyd Landis call Armstrong a liar during an interview on “Nightline.” Former teammate Tyler Hamilton, during a “60 Minutes” interview, says he saw Armstrong take EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions.
You also hear the powerful words from Pat McQuaid, president of Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for sports cycling, from October 2012, when he told the world, “The UCI would ban Lance Armstrong from cycling, and the UCI would strip him of his seven Tour de France titles. Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling.”
Interviews with former teammates Frank Andreu and George Hincapie, as well as Andreu’s wife, Betsy, paint a picture of Armstrong as a dominating figure who controlled his fellow riders and gave ultimatums and threats if they didn’t follow his rules, especially when it came to doping and keeping silent about their actions.
A major point in the second half of the film is the assertion by Frank and Betsy Andreu that both were in the hospital room in 1996 when Armstrong, while recovering from cancer treatments, admitted to doctors that he used testosterone, EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs during the Tour de France.
Even after Armstrong calls Betsy and apologizes for all the things he put both of them through for 10 years, Armstrong never acknowledges that he admitted doping to the doctors in 1996.
The film also looks back on Armstrong growing up in Plano, Texas, where it’s obvious he was extremely competitive. You can see him in high school, when he became a national sprint-course triathlon champion before he turned to competitive cycling.
Even at an early age, Armstrong displays a nasty streak as he competes, with little to no mention of sportsmanship or love of the sport itself.
“I just love competing against the best,” he says as a teenager. “I love beating people.”
As a cancer survivor, he looked at his fight against the disease as a win or lose competition, where “losing equals death,” a motto he carried with him during his comeback from 1998 through 2005.
His comeback story is one that made him a hero in the eyes of many. While winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles, he also built up his Livestrong Foundation for cancer research and the support of cancer survivors.
The viewers also get a sense of why any admission of guilt would be crushing to those same people who supported him. But as he admits to doping during both the Winfrey interview and the final filming with Gibney, there is a feeling one isn’t getting the whole truth from Armstrong, but rather more defense mechanisms in play.
“Another definition for ‘cheat’ is to deceive,” Gibney says late in the film. “That’s why Lance is a cheater. He deceived his fans, yet it’s also fair to say that they were willing to be fooled. So many people, from cancer survivors to reporters to sponsors to myself, loved the beautiful lie more than the ugly truth.”