“There are no secrets here. We have the oldest secret in the book: hard work.”
That’s just one of the falsehoods that spewed from Lance Armstrong’s mouth, as he built his comeback story with a seemingly endless series of look-straight-into-the-camera lies. The untruths are so audacious – Armstrong was even willing to destroy truth-tellers with his lies – that it’s easy to ignore the human story and get caught up in the outrage.
Alex Gibney avoids that pitfall, beginning “The Armstrong Lie” by asking why Armstrong was willing to risk returning to the Tour de France in 2009, for a final round of lies that would lead to all the others being exposed. The documentarian doesn’t fully answer that question, but his approach is an asset, making the heavily mined ground feel fresh again.
Gibney is in an interesting position. The filmmaker had followed Armstrong during his 2009 comeback and admits getting a little swept up in the story. As someone who came to admire the rider after tailing him extensively, Gibney has a unique insight (along with a ton of unused footage). But as a prolific and reputable maker of well-crafted films, he has the talent and experience to handle the material with relative objectivity. Gibney doesn’t seem angry that Armstrong lied to him. He approaches the turn of events with fascination.
“The Armstrong Lie” ably gives the context for Armstrong’s cheating, comparing the bicycle riders and their blood doping suppliers to NASCAR mechanics trying to gain advantage through tuning. Armstrong’s alleged doping mastermind is interviewed. The whistle-blowers who turned on Armstrong are profiled, often with their own flaws emerging. Armstrong still acted like a demon, but it becomes clear there were very, very few angels associated with the sport in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The former champion doesn’t come off any worse by the end of the film – how could he, absent some unseen Gibney footage of the bicyclist clubbing a baby seal with a tire pump? But Gibney does take a clinical approach toward holding the athlete accountable, including an interview of Armstrong, moments after his 2013 TV appearance with Oprah Winfrey.
None of the athlete’s words really answer Gibney’s central question. Perhaps we’re just supposed to see it in his eyes. It is clear that Armstrong in 2013 sincerely regrets his actions. Whether he’s really sorry for doing wrong, or just letting himself get caught so unnecessarily, is something we'll probably never know for sure.
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