In 2009, Alex Gibney followed Lance Armstrong to France to make a film about his triumphant return to professional cycling. It was an act of great naivete, an especially interesting move for a director who has already made more than one film about mendacity. How is it that the man who documented the scandal and corruption around Enron, Jack Abramoff and the Catholic Church was taken in by an athlete? The Armstrong Lie is, in a sense, his way of addressing his own blindness. Gibney wants to understand how so many were fooled by the outright lies of the cyclist for so many years, in spite of the growing mountain of allegations against him. He wants to understand why he himself believed the lies.
The resulting documentary is an interesting hybrid of old and new testimonies. Gibney uses much of the footage he took during the Tour de France in 2009, which drives home the gullibility of not only the filmmaker himself but basically everyone around Armstrong. Yet this is an active sort of gullibility. People convinced themselves that he was clean, that the whole sport was clean, regardless of the evidence they may have been privy to. Bit by bit, The Armstrong Lie chronicles the most significant accusations of cheating, from the very early rumors of the late 1990s, through the publication of L.A. Confidentiel: Lance Armstrong’s Secrets in 2004 and the final critical mass after the 2009 comeback. Armstrong’s teammates knew, his competitors knew, coaches knew. In order for this web of lies to survive, people needed to do more than believe in one man’s words. They needed to lie to themselves.
If they didn’t, then Armstrong would try to ruin their lives, often to great success. Emotions run high in this film, especially when former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy are involved. The two testified against Armstrong in 2006, asserting that they had seen him doping as early as 1996. The champion’s response was to wage legal war against them, and in the end he won.
Gibney gives them both the chance to set the record straight, which becomes yet another fascinating relic of Armstrong’s gift for manipulation. Betsy, understandably, is still furious. Frankie, on the other hand, clearly has some loyalty left. In 2009, by which time he had become a cycling commentator, Armstrong insisted that only Frankie be allowed to interview him. It was an act of humiliation, another opportunity to assert control. Frankie cooperated anyway.
And so the film’s principle question asserts itself anew. Why did people believe all of the lies? Gibney argues that at the core it was Armstrong’s gift as a storyteller. His inspiring comeback from cancer, the perfect optics of the Livestrong campaign, and the sheer brilliance of his seven consecutive victories made everyone want to believe him. He was a charlatan of the highest order — no wonder Gibney himself believed him back in 2009.
The Armstrong Lie is an effective, if perhaps overlong, interrogation of imagined heroism and the dreams we choose to believe. Yet it shines when Gibney decides to push things just a bit further, and tries to craft a portrait of power. At core, the Armstrong story is not that far off from those tales of institutional corruption that filled Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The very structure of cycling in the last decade has been propped up by drugs and blood infusions.
Early on in the film Gibney points out that of all of the men who came in 2nd and 3rd to Armstrong in the Tour de France, only one of them has not been caught cheating. Entire teams cheated together. There are shocking stories of blood transfusions done practically out in the open, and drugs being smuggled into France in almost hilarious ways. The role of Michele Ferrari, mad doctor to the stars of cycling, is presented particularly well. No one is ever held accountable, and after a certain point it became basically a bad career move to race clean.
With this information, The Armstrong Lie borders on becoming an allegory for the 21st century’s entire lying problem, from the abuses of the financial industry to the circuses of lobbying that Gibney and others have covered in the past. Yet that connection is never quite made in a meaningful way. By making such a personal film, Gibney misses the opportunity to open it up to larger, more universal concerns. Its metaphorical potential, along the lines of The Queen of Versailles, is lost. The Armstrong Lie is a very good sports documentary, but doesn’t reach far enough to become one of the best nonfiction films of the year.
The Armstrong Lie is now playing in New York City and Los Angeles.