Review: The Armstrong Lie, a Documentary by Alex Gibney
Enough already, right? The charges that Lance Armstrong cheated to win his seven consecutive Tours de France had grown tiresome even at his peak. And while the world’s most famous cancer survivor’s confession to Oprah in January made for a riveting first five minutes, that performance, too, got old fast—not least because Armstrong’s idea of contrition was, what do you want from me? And yet, if Armstrong ennui keeps you from seeing Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Armstrong Lie, out on Nov. 8, you’ll miss out big-time.
Far more intimate than most fallen celebrity autopsies, the film, as Armstrong chronicler Daniel Coyle tells viewers early on, is “not a story about doping, but a story about power.” The Armstrong that emerges from Gibney’s portrait is remarkable not only for the reasons everyone remembers, but for his absolute cunning. Initially, Armstrong tells Gibney, he didn’t even see doping as unethical but as an equalizer: Only a loser brings a knife to a gunfight. Once he had won the Tour, doping was simply another advantage he used to protect his inspirational back-from-cancer legend, prestige, and income. “I like to win,” Armstrong says with a shrug, “but really I can’t stand losing, because to me, that equals death.”
The movie opens in 2013, with a post-Oprah interview, which is how we’re able to hear Armstrong reflect on his deceit. Yet most of the film is built from an earlier, failed project—the intended-to-be-triumphant inside story of Armstrong’s 2009 comeback. (He first retired from cycling in 2005.) As such, Lie jumps between the present, with Armstrong stripped of all his trophies and sponsors, and the past, to hotel room conversations in the middle of the ’09 Tour, during which Armstrong lies to Gibney’s face. It’s hair-raising stuff, and poignant, too, once we retrace the full arc of Armstrong’s career.
Because Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9) embedded with Armstrong in ’09, he gained exceptional access. And Armstrong, it must be said, is good company; Gibney’s proximity humanizes him. When a family breakfast is interrupted for yet another unscheduled drug test, it’s hard not to sympathize with Armstrong. After blowing up at the antidoping agent’s “bulls—,” Armstrong says to his daughter with genuine humor, “Daddy’s job is to give blood.”
For these dogged drug testers, of course, Armstrong had only himself to blame. Staging his comeback, he made a show of submitting to tests to prove he was not doping and, by implication, never had. In Lie, it’s darkly hilarious to hear him explain how easy it was to defeat these tests. Early on, there was no test for EPO (erythropoietin), a game-changing endurance booster. Later, he and his teammates avoided testing positive with microdoses and careful scheduling. (EPO remains traceable in the bloodstream for only a few hours.)
Between when Armstrong first retired and 2009, however, nearly every top cyclist on the Tour got caught using banned substances. To any thinking person, there was just no way Armstrong had bested all of them without doping himself. As such, he had to know that his return would fuel resentment from those, like his former teammate Floyd Landis, who’d been busted and paid the price. And it’s clear from the documentary that Armstrong would have gotten away with all of it had he not returned in ’09. So why did he? Why dare his frenemies to expose him? These are the less expected questions that animate Lie. Another is, did he dope again in 2009, right under the filmmaker’s nose?
Before the movie is over, we’ve met Michele Ferrari, the mastermind of Armstrong’s doping regimen; and we’ve seen Alberto Condator, a Spanish cyclist, demoting Armstrong to second fiddle on his own team, punking the veteran and winning the Tour with Armstrong-like manipulation. We’ve also recovered a sense of the beauty and fever of the Tour. Beyond that, the movie is a profound examination of win-at-all-costs ambition. Substitute insider trading for doping, and it’s not a stretch to say The Armstrong Lie is one of the best movies you’ll ever see on the drive and moral relativism that lead to corruption.