An investigation into the doping scandal that pushed American cyclist Lance Armstrong back into the media spotlight for all the wrong reasons, Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie (2013) manages to uncover a veritable peloton of untruth. Whilst mitigating Armstrong’s cheating, Gibney successfully unearths the intricate mechanics of the deception, exposing a far more repugnant, ugly side of this once respected icon. Tackling news stories whilst the ink on their headlines is still fresh, the prolific Gibney’s dogged mission objective to release a minimum of two films a year has initiated a wave of docs broaching current affairs before they’ve quite had time to settle within the social psyche.
Built from raw fragments of footage collected during an ill-fated attempt to make an Armstrong comeback film back in 2009, Gibney has revisited the subject to document the controversial career of the man who survived testicular cancer, only to go on and “win” seven straight Tour de France series. Gibney clearly isn’t a man to be messed with, and clearly irritated at having been lied to throughout his first meeting with Armstrong, took it upon himself to expose the roots behind the lie and why he came back to cycling in 2009 after having already cemented his place in the history books. Using the infamous Oprah Winfrey interview as his diving board, Gibney jumps right into Armstrong’s furtive past, charting his initial rise, comeback and calamitous fall before and after the now infamous ’09 Tour de France.
Ironically, Armstrong’s secret might have stayed hidden had he not decided to come out of retirement in 2009, Gibney questioning whether or not this was a personal mission by Armstrong to see if he could do it without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. By breaking the cycling omertà and revealing that almost all cyclists were culpable of taking banned substances such as EPO, Gibney finds himself caught between the mythmakers and mythbusters, desperate to uncover the motivation behind Armstrong’s deceit. Gibney focuses on the whistleblowers and journalists whose reputations were tarnished by Armstrong’s repeated denial, layering his inquiry into a fascinating study of masculinity, our cultural addiction to celebrity and the detrimental effects of competitiveness within modern society.
However, there’s also another villain in this piece and Gibney is keen to expose his role in the controversy. Michele Ferrari was the Italian sports doctor behind the advanced drugs used, with his role as Armstrong’s adviser making him the Frankenstein to the film’s publicly-maligned monster. Indeed, what distinguishes The Armstrong Lie from your average HBO confessional is its systematic focus on facts. Gibney has commendably crafted a surprisingly lucid and unbiased work about a man who point-blank lied to his face. Sadly though, this often penetrating doc just lacks the deeper social significance normally associated with his critically acclaimed offerings.
This review was originally published on 15 October 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.