Should I Watch..? 'The Armstrong Lie' (2013)
What's the big deal?
The Armstrong Lie is a sporting documentary film released in 2013 and is written and directed by Alex Gibney. The film's focus is disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong who, in the midst of a much-heralded comeback in 2009, was exposed as the most prolific drugs cheat in sports history. Originally conceived as charting Armstrong's comeback and his attempts to win an eighth Tour De France title, the revelations regarding his past meant that Gibney had unwittingly been present at the breaking of the story and here, Lance is given the opportunity to set the record straight. The documentary was screened out of competition at the Venice International Film Festival and earned a total worldwide gross of $428'000.
What's it about?
In 2009, Lance Armstrong returned from retirement in an attempt to win the legendary Tour De France, a race he had won seven times between 1998 and 2005 after returning to cycling after a battle with testicular cancer. He had been dogged by doping allegations throughout his career but had never once failed a drugs test. His story was hailed as miraculous and he became a sporting icon with numerous fans and commentators willing to buy into it. One of them, Gibney, decided to document Lance's return to cycling.
Sadly, it was not to be. Finishing third in the Tour, Lance suddenly became engulfed in controversy when numerous figures including current and former team-mates testified to Lance's extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs. Soon, the lie was exposed and Armstrong himself went on national TV to confess his crimes to Oprah Winfrey. But what drove a man to take such a chance and why did no-one attempt to stop him if his cheating was so well known by the cycling governing body, the UCI?
What's to like?
In what must count as the most sensational piece of luck ever, Gibney was extremely fortunate to be filming Armstrong when the story broke. The Armstrong Lie feels more like a piece of journalism with a long line of talking heads discussing Armstrong's web of deceit and use of seemingly every trick in the book to evade being caught. Even knowing the story, it is truly shocking to see how brazen the cheating actually was such as faking a mechanical breakdown during one stage of the tour, parking the team coach across the road and giving the riders what they required whether it was a blood transfusion, EPO, growth hormones or cortisone. In fact, it's staggering they got away with it for so long.
But the film is keen to point out that it's wasn't necessarily Armstrong's fault. The UCI, bewitched by Armstrong's story and charisma, turned a blind eye to what was going on while the other riders maintained a strict code of silence which was only broken when legal matters intervened. And as Armstrong points out, he was never the only one doing it - the Tour De France has long been a haven for cheaters of every kind - and he believes that he was only doing what was necessary to keep pace with the others. Armstrong is never contrite, however - he still maintains that he never cheated because he feels as though he didn't gain an advantage over the other riders. Quite how he reached this conclusion is a mystery - presumably, if you keep lying for long enough, it becomes true in your mind. But rarely do you have sympathy for him, despite Gibney's affectionate portrayal.
- The documentary was originally called "The Road Back" but once the doping scandal broke, Gibney was forced to change the film's title to The Armstrong Lie. The title actually comes from a headline in L'Équipe in 2005, regarding the conspiracy.
- Armstrong's rival Alberto Contador, who is shown in the film, was later charged with doping offences himself and was stripped of his Tour victory in 2010.
- The Oprah interview was broadcast on 13th January, 2013. Within three hours, Armstrong was talking to Gibney on camera about his doping career - it's this footage that appears in the film.
What's not to like?
Wait a minute, I hear you ask? How can this be an affectionate portrayal of Lance Armstrong when he openly admits to cheating his way to the top?
Quite rightly, Armstrong does himself no favours in the film. His eyes burn with the fierce intensity you'd expect from a professional sportsman but Gibney also admits to buying into the lies. He, like many around the world, wanted to believe that this man could come back from cancer and win the Tour seven times. But even when the truth does come out, it feels as though Gibney is clutching at straws in an attempt to shift the blame. It wasn't all Armstrong's fault - the UCI and it's then-president Hein Verbruggen were in on it as well, numerous journalists and competitive rivals were out to ruin Lance, the damage to Lance's reputation as well as his Livestrong charity would be too great if the truth were known... We even see Armstrong interacting with sick children, as if to refute the suggestion that he is an evil man.
That he has a dark side, however, is irrefutable. His handling of a journalist who questioned him about his association with renowned doping doctor Michele Ferrari is alarmingly brutal while the treatment of those who did speak the truth and refused to tow the line was equally devastating. Armstrong, at his peak, held considerable power over organisations like the UCI as well as individuals and he freely abused this power to achieve his goals. His defiance continued after the conspiracy was exposed, insisting that he had not cheated in spite of the truth being known. Armstrong comes across as power-hungry, delusional and manipulative - although Gibney still seems to consider him a friend...
Should I watch it?
It might not have been the love-fest Gibney intended when he started filming but The Armstrong Lie is a surprising peep at the shadowy world of professional cycling. It's no shock to find cheating going on (the Tour seems dogged by scandal every year) but the level of cheating, combined with Armstrong's web of lies, is mind-boggling to see exposed like this. However, it's difficult to pair up the image of a victory-obsessed drug abuser with the genuinely nice-guy image Gibney tries to paint - does Gibeny not consider those clean riders (if any) who were robbed of glory by Armstrong? I suspect that Gibney's intended love-letter to the man had to be sidelined when he discovered his hero-worship was misplaced.
Great For: shattering your faith in sports, exposing the methods used, highlighting the madness associated with the Tour (both riders and fans)
Not So Great For: motivating young athletes, Lance Armstrong, deluded fantasists
What else should I watch?
Cycling has come under much scrutiny since the Armstrong scandal broke, even if it does feel like shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. Drug use of a different kind is examined in Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist which looks at the rise and demise of Italian Marco Pantani, even if it does offer a similarly sympathetic outlook. A more dramatic look at cycling in Bicycle Dreams, a documentary looking at the gruelling Race Across America and the enormous physical and emotional toll it takes on those competing.
Sportsmen have often been more exciting than the sport they are involved in and one of those is arguably the great racing driver Ayrton Senna, the subject of the excellent documentary Senna. Or, if you prefer a more Hollywood style look at Formula One, the drama Rush examines the real-life rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt as they clashed for the 1976 Driver's Championship, a battle that had tragic consequences.
Release Date (UK)
31st January, 2014
© 2015 Benjamin Cox