FILM REVIEW: The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney, 2013)

I don’t know much about cycling or the Tour de France. When people used to mention Lance Armstrong I thought they were talking about the first man on the moon. Of course I did learn who he was because the media practically shoved it down our throats, but I didn’t know much about the details and I didn’t overly care.  Alex Gibney’s initial intention was to make a documentary about Armstrong’s return to cycling in 2009, titled ‘The Road Back’. I definitely wouldn’t have watched that, though I’m sure many would have… if that was the end of the story. However, when Armstrong finally admitted to doping, Gibney felt that he was owed an explanation, and the film took on a new life, becoming The Armstrong Lie. This film focuses on the lie, including interviews with Armstrong both before and after his confession, as well as former teammates, doctors, and journalists. I’m not into cycling, but the psychological aspect of it definitely appealed to me – we get to watch the lie unfold and see what he has to say about it now. It’s fascinating to watch someone lie so convincingly with the knowledge we now have.

Liar liar pants on fire
Liar liar pants on fire

When Oprah asked Lance Armstrong if he considered himself a cheat, he said he did not think so at the time, citing the definition of a cheater as someone who has an unfair advantage over other participants. He maintains that this was not the case, as so many of the cyclists in the Tour De France were doping too – and we see many of them admit to it in the interviews within the film. I have to say that after seeing this film I think the sport has next to zero credibility because it really does show how commonplace doping was. Maybe it has changed since but I’m not too hopeful because it seems to have been that way for so long that it is just part of the sport. Obviously I do not follow the sport closely (and have no respect for it after this film) but it would’ve had to have changed pretty dramatically in just a few years to be credible. As a newbie to cycling, what I also found interesting was how there were ways to gain an unfair advantage over others that were well within the rules. For example, the cyclists within a team take it in turns to ride out front in harsh winds and to bear the brunt of the wind’s full force. Despite the riders regularly swapping around, Armstrong spent only a few minutes in front (out of multiple hours), thus getting an easier ride. How is this fair? I find it strange how there are teams made up of individual competitors who have to sacrifice their own success for the golden boy of their team. It seems like a bullshit sport to me, but then I don’t exactly get it.
lanceI don’t quite understand why Lance Armstrong was so admired. When you watch the old footage of him disputing claims of doping, he kind of looked like a wanker. And not just because of the lie, but because of the way he just crucified his doubters with such arrogance and derision. Is it just because he’s a cancer survivor? Did that give him a free pass? Or is it that people become so easily obsessed with winners? Gibney only brings up this question at the very end of the film. I would have loved to have seen this aspect explored further.

Cheering Lance on
Cheering Lance on

I have to wonder who exactly the audience is for this film. I’ve heard that some of his once loyal fans are now the biggest haters because they feel embarrassed for defending him. This betrayal may mean that they no longer have the time for him – I expected that my sometime-cyclist Dad would want to see this film but he said he wasn’t interested because he felt let down by Armstrong. Or, as another has suggested, did (at least some of) his fans never care about the doping because doping is just expected in cycling? But if they don’t care why would they be interested in this film? Then there are the people like me who never really cared much in the first place, and I would assume that most people with no interest in cycling would sit this one out. I saw it for the psychology and I personally found it riveting. Unfortunately I don’t think many will give it that chance.

Bloody cyclists. Where are their helmets?!
Bloody cyclists riding without helmets

In terms of the technical side of the documentary, for the most part I thought it was well put together. The start of the film went back and forth in time a bit too much for my liking, but eventually it settled on telling the story in chronological order, with later interviews with Armstrong in between. I felt a bit bummed when after showing about 3/4 of his 2009 Tour de France ride, Gibney mentions in the voiceover that Armstrong lost. It felt like such a spoiler but then again I’m probably one of the only people that didn’t know where he finished in the race. To be honest I actually felt a little disappointed because I was almost rooting for him! It just seemed like the natural progression of the story. Unfortunately no light is shed on whether he doped in 2009 – he swears he didn’t but can we trust him? Clearly not. You don’t need to be a cycling fan to appreciate this film, you just need to be interested in the lie. But if you can’t stand watching wankers, maybe you should skip this one…

4 stars

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