"I didn't live a lot of lies, but I did live one big one."
That's how the new documentary from director Alex Gibney opens, with a half-confession from disgraced cycling superstar Lance Armstrong. It is a perfect first line and sets the tone for the rest of the stunning film, which chronicles Armstrong's miraculous cancer-be-damned cycling career, resulting doping revelations and the Texan's tumble from the top.
In 2008, Gibney—who at the time was one of Lance's many admirers—gained unprecedented access to the cyclist's life and began filming his post-retirement comeback. But in January 2013 Gibney rapidly changed gears after Armstrong admitted to long-term performance enhancing drug use during an Oprah Winfrey interview.
Gibney, like most of Armstrong's millions of fans, felt betrayed by the lies and until that point, Armstrong's vociferous denials. In response, Gibney demanded an explanation from the cocksure seven-time Tour de France winner.
That personal drive to get the truth provides an honest and emotional thrust for this movie. But, even though Gibney ultimately succeeds in getting Armstrong to fess up—and in doing so provides some sort of emotional satisfaction—there is still a residue over the whole film. It is difficult to avoid feeling like Armstrong is still holding back a bit and continuing to lie through his pearly white teeth. Despite, The Armstrong Lie is a grand film.
Gibney is far more than a fan; he is a wonderful documentary filmmaker. (He also directed the brilliant 2005 documentary, Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room.) But what sets his latest effort apart is his admiration and adoration for both Armstrong and cycling. And that emotional core fuels the narrative. Gibney's understanding of the sport also provides for fantastic editing and cinematography—this movie may be the single best source of Armstrong cycling footage.
By using hundreds of dated clips, the documentary follows Armstrong's early, pre-cancer cycling career as a single-day racer (he won the World Championships long before he ever won the Tour) before launching into cancer footage and Armstrong's first comeback.
It was with significant help from Italian scientist/trainer Michele Ferrari, who Gibney portrays more as a likeable mad scientist than a malicious cheater, that the former champ was able to transform himself into an endurance machine capable of complete dominance. Of course, as Gibney points out, Armstrong also benefited from complicit teammates, coaches and even race officials. In the next chapter—during Armstrong's second comeback, after his seven Tour wins and 2005 retirement—Gibney presents a version of a man, now more human than humanoid, who is still willing to do anything to win. The difference is, he just can't.
Though somewhat lengthy at two hours and three minutes, The Armstrong Lie expertly and quickly moves from heart-pounding action sequences to candid one-on-one interviews and historical footage. In doing so, it creates a riveting and dynamic portrait of an overly confident and intimidatingly vindictive man. It is a Greek tale for our times.
Dir. by Alex Gibney
Opens Friday, Dec. 13
Tin Pan Theater