Film Review: The Armstrong Lie

Compelling portrait of an athlete undone by his own ambition.

What if the same trait that makes a man a success leads to his downfall? Lance Armstrong did not want to win. He wanted to dominate. The Armstrong Lie documents a man so driven to succeed that he doped and lied about it for years. Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, beat cancer, and became a hero in a sport that needed a public face. He also hired one of the best doctors in the performance-enhancing business and sued anyone who dared to brand him as a doper. When everyone else got caught, he didn’t, because he was a cancer survivor, a champion and a celebrity. He was untouchable.

Director Alex Gibney composes his documentary using before-and-after interviews with Armstrong. He starts in 2008 when Armstrong looks the camera in the eye and tells everyone no, he has never doped. Then Gibney picks back up with Armstrong in 2013, shortly after he confessed to Oprah Winfrey on national television. Moving back and forth in time and drawing from interviews and archival footage, Gibney shades Armstrong’s actions with layers of gray.

Gibney narrates the film, admitting the glee he felt seeing Armstrong cycle up a mountaintop as he staged a comeback during the 2009 Tour de France. Nearly 40, Armstrong returned from retirement to race in an effort to silence his critics who claimed, correctly as it turns out, that he was doping. That race was the beginning of the end. It ignited new investigations that eventually led to him receiving a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and being stripped of all his titles. Some say that if Armstrong had rested on his laurels instead of returning to cycling, he might not have been caught. But it’s very clear that Armstrong is not the kind of person who coasts when he can climb.

Part of what makes The Armstrong Life so interesting is its place in Gibney’s filmography. This is a man who covered the hubris of corporate professionals in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the downfalls of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer in Casino Jack and Client 9, and a deviant priest in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Like most of these men, Armstrong used his fame and power to enable his deception. Those who knew about his doping said nothing, through a cycling code of omerta. Those who did speak were sued, jeopardizing their careers and financial futures. One journalist Gibney interviews, David Walsh, was sued by Armstrong, preventing the release of his book in the United States. Cyclists were cast as outsiders for going public about their knowledge. Gibney views this aggressiveness as worse than the doping itself. Everyone else who shared the podium with Armstrong during those years was also implicated in doping. Armstrong was the last to fall, in part because he battled so aggressively against those who dared to challenge him. With his status as cycling’s emissary, the International Cycling Union was loath to defy a man who brought so much money into the sport. This power dynamic Armstrong consistently wielded to his advantage.

People who have followed news of Armstrong’s doping scandal will enjoy seeing the story expertly encapsulated within Gibney’s narrative. That being said, Gibney offers very little new information to the Armstrong tale. Those wanting an exhaustive account may be better served by reading one of the many books written on the subject. The rest of us who don’t have the time to read a half-dozen accounts about Armstrong can hear all the experts here, in one place. What Gibney offers is uniquely cinematic: an emotional connection to a beguiling man, who gives you reason both to respect and revile him.