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Documentary Review - The Armstrong Lie

The rise and fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Directed by: Alex Gibney
Featuring: Lance Armstrong, Reed Albergotti, Betsy Andreu


Alex Gibney’s latest documentary feature continues his hot streak of finding urgently topical or intriguing subjects. With Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets last year following on from Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and, trailing in their wake, diverse fare covering the life of Hunter S. Thompson or the Enron scandal, Gibney now brings us the  intricate tale of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong.
For those who somehow don’t know, Armstrong was one of the great cycling legends of the era. Diagnosed in his twenties with testicular, abdominal, lung and brain cancer, Lance Armstrong managed to cheat death, returning to competitive cycling and going on to win the Tour de France seven times in a row. His story became one of the great redemptive legends of sporting history, and I mean that with no exaggeration.
The film was initially undertaken in 2009 following Armstrong’s ambitious comeback run of the same world-famous race. For all his years of competition and success, rumours of cheating had dogged Armstrong. His decision to return to the Tour at the age of 38 was intended as a thumbing the nose at his critics. Alex Gibney is given the inside track on this vast ‘lap of honour’ and spent a year with Armstrong, before during and after the Tour proper. During the course of The Armstrong Lie, Gibney, who presents and narrates the film, is told that those outside the Armstrong camp regarded the film maker as having been drafted in to write the official version, “the hagiography” and as such he was viewed with distrust. Those of them who see this film will feel relieved and justified: this is no ‘life of St. Lance’ but instead a portrait of a driven man and his personal tale of hubris.
The Armstrong Lie is a lengthy in-depth look at its subject, with an unusual even-handedness toward a person it would be easy to condemn. We all project moral qualities we aspire to onto those who achieve great things, and if we find we have been cheated by their cheating, we breathe fire on them in our disappointment. Gibney refrains from this, in favor of a movie that will last as a historical document, complimenting the many books written on Armstrong in recent years.
In 2012, Lance Armstrong’s lengthy history of cheating was confirmed, his titles were stripped from him and he was banned for life from the sport of competitive cycling. This ends up revising the structure of the story Gibney thought he was telling, creating a before-and-after, back-and-forth rhythm where footage of Armstrong lying in interviews is contrasted with the footage of his coming clean, and of the many people who have for better or for worse come into contact with him over the years.
There are some amazing-looking cinematic moments, images drawn for the 2009 Tour de France, and often coupled with carefully picked songs (the soundtrack is a blend of handpicked tunes and ambient instrumental pieces). Incidental people in the larger narrative add up to the equivalent of a rich supporting cast, diverse and distinct and each seemingly cast in a role in relation to the principal, underpinning the ‘dark side of the legend’ quality that the story takes as we are lead deeper into its complications.
A downside to the film might be the same as any of his films: Gibney himself seems curiously absent, even when he makes an effort to include himself. His films are intensely concerned with moral questions but he seems to prefer sculpting his audience's attention and implying his opinion rather than directly stating it, which might not be to everybody’s taste. Also, if you’re not gripped, the film will seem a little long.
Overall, The Armstrong Lie is a uniquely sensitive profile of a complex situation and a complex, contradictory man, as told by a film maker uniquely placed to witness and communicate that story.
8/10


Rúairí Conneely

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