In the insightful documentary “The Armstrong Lie,” Lance Armstrong looks at the camera and mock-apologizes to filmmaker Alex Gibney for ruining Gibney’s film. The moment happened in a French hotel room in 2009, when Gibney was tracking seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong’s comeback from retirement four years earlier.
Armstrong, clearly out of contention for a win, apologizes for mucking up the film’s would-be triumphant ending. (Armstrong would finish third). Armstrong will make more-sincere-seeming apologies in “Lie,” which revisited the bike racer in 2013, after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped him of his Tour wins and banned him for life. But none seems as pained nor as true as the one in the hotel room.
Though he masks it with humor, you see Armstrong’s struggle to accept he would not realize the narrative in his head of a Tour win after four years away. Armstrong’s fame always has been tied to a great story. The Texan’s recovery from devastating cancer and subsequent dominance of his sport and work on behalf of cancer patients won him admirers around the world.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Gibney (2007’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about alleged U.S. torture practices in Afghanistan) also narrates “Lie,” in the first person.
He suggests that Armstrong – whose blood and urine were tested often in 2009, sometimes with Gibney’s camera present for part of the process – came back from retirement to prove indisputably he could win without cheating.
During his heyday, Armstrong passed every test. But the view among observers who saw Armstrong’s former team- and podium-mates ensnared in doping scandals was that Armstrong outwitted the system.
That the doubters were correct did not diminish Armstrong’s drive to discredit them. In examining Armstrong’s win-at-all-costs attitude, Gibney interweaves new interviews with Armstrong, former teammates and racing experts with 2009 footage of a comeback that included the Amgen Tour of California that whizzed through Sacramento. Gibney had shelved the footage when the cloud of suspicion over Armstrong grew darker.
Armstrong lied to Gibney on many occasions in 2009, but insists in 2013 that he placed third in the 2009 Tour without cheating. This despite irregularities found in blood taken from Armstrong at the time. Gibney, in turn, entertains the possibility Armstrong is telling the truth.
When it comes to Armstrong, any competing-clean scenario equals intrigue. It’s the only real mystery in “Lie,” which comes out nearly a year after Armstrong confessed to cheating in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. But Armstrong and others do fill in the details. Some are gory, like an account of a whole team undergoing blood transfusions on the bus during the Tour de France. The bus was surrounded by racing fans and police at the time.
It can be a dispiriting ride. He’s not as buttoned-up before Gibney’s camera as he was with Oprah, yet Armstrong still comes off as that unattractive combination of milquetoast and arrogant.
Armstrong’s assertion that he had to dope to compete explains the cheating but not the lies. His acknowledgment that he brought the same zeal to confronting critics that he did to racing – because he lacked an “off” button – does little to soften the impact of archival footage showing his underhanded behavior.
Videotape from a lawsuit deposition shows Armstrong dismiss three-time Tour de France winner and former Rancho Murieta resident Greg LeMond – an early critic of Armstrong’s relationship with (now-banned) doctor Michele Ferrari – as a heavy drinker and thus unreliable.
In a clip from “The View,” Armstrong questions the credibility of Betsy Andreu, wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu, and her account of once hearing Armstrong acknowledge doping to a doctor.
The “View” hosts do not challenge Armstrong’s portrayal of Andreu. “Lie” recalls life before Armstrong’s ban, when Armstrong critics were considered haters. The media and public wanted to believe Armstrong because his comeback from cancer was so inspirational and because he helped kids with cancer (efforts that by all accounts, including the film’s, are heartfelt).
His public admirers might never have seen Armstrong race, but they knew the yellow bracelets, and the Nike commercial, and the romance with Sheryl Crow.
But “Lie” emerges as less an indictment of our celebrity-obsessed culture (Armstrong’s case is too specific) than a portrait of an incredibly demanding sport. Gibney details how riders on steep Tour de France courses long have “doped” in some way. Early riders used to cope by guzzling alcohol along the route.
Gibney’s 2009 Tour footage, some of it shot within groups of cyclists, underscores the race’s punishing nature. Armstrong is visibly taxed, huffing and straining to keep up with the leaders.
He looks vulnerable and far more exposed than he does in interviews, pre- or post-USADA ban. Not so much that you forgive his deception, but enough that it’s no longer only deception you see.
THE ARMSTRONG LIE
* * *
Director: Alex Gibney
Rated R (for language)