It’s been a good year for documentaries at Venice, with two selected in competition: Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known and Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA. Screening out of competition comes Oscar-winning documentarian Alec Gibney’s unveiling of The Armstrong Lie (2013). The origins of the film were fortuitous in the extreme. In 2009, Gibney was initially hired to make a film charting what was to be American cyclist and seven-time Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong’s triumphant return to the Tour, as he attempted to win the coveted yellow jersey for an eighth time and silence the clamber of his many critics.

Armstrong’s detractors were appalled at what they thought would be a hagiography, but events overtook both the subject and the film crew when incontrovertible evidence of systematic doping was finally put on record. Armstrong was subsequently stripped of his victories and banned from all competitive sporting activities for life. Beginning with the cyclist’s infamous Oprah interview, Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie gives us an intimate view of the man himself.

Armstrong turns out to be a ferocious competitor, a bully and (as it transpires) a cheat, but also an individual with a phenomenal will that would see him beat a horrific bout of cancer and still compete – albeit unfairly – in one of the most gruelling sporting events in the calendar. As well as getting a view of Armstrong up-close, speaking to-camera with a deceptive candidness, we also hear from his team-mates and naysayers – the latter often recruited from the former. Those interviewed build up a compelling story of a sport in which doping is common and any possible chance to gain an edge over an opponent is considered fair game. “The rules of the road, but not the rules of the sport,” as one eloquent cyclist puts it.

As the sport attempts to clean itself up, riders and their team leaders resort to ever more complex methods of enhancing performance, including transfusions of their own blood that has been taken from them at high altitude. One of the figures who masterminds this is the notorious Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who happily views himself as the engineer of an athlete’s body. This context has the disturbing effect of mitigating Armstrong’s wrongdoings and defanging the legitimate criticisms of our subject. If Gibney’s latest project aimed to give us a genuine reassessment of the cyclist, in truth it’s not been wholly effective.

Most of the ‘revelations’ revealed in The Armstrong Lie is bow common knowledge, and Gibney is careful to ring-fence Armstrong’s charity work from criticism – even though the cyclist cynically used it again and again to silence critics. The documentary really comes alive, however, in recounting the races (especially Armstrong’s 2009 comeback) and the excitement of a sport which, to the uninitiated, can often look chaotic and nonsensical. Although not quite re-reaching the high water mark of the superb Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) or Taxi to the Darkside (2007), Gibney’s latest remains a riveting portrait of a man who is perhaps too tough to get to the core of.

The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale