- Running time
- 122 min
- Alex Gibney
- Lance Armstrong
- OFLC rating
THE ARMSTRONG LIE (M)
Opens Thursday, 123 minutes
There is a moment in Alex Gibney's documentary when he gets an apology from Lance Armstrong. In hindsight, you could say it came a little early, but at the time, it must have seemed heartfelt and wry, maybe even generous. "I f---ed up your documentary," Armstrong says. "I'm sorry."
A still from The Armstrong Lie.
Gibney, an experienced documentary maker who won an Oscar in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side, had signed on to make a film about the cyclist's return to the Tour de France in 2009, four years after he had retired. It was shaping up to be an extraordinary story, in a sporting career that had had its fair share of twists and turns. It was going to be called The Road Back.
Armstrong went into the race thinking he could win, and there was a stage when it looked as though he would. Then it became clear that he would not. When Armstrong made that rueful apology, he was acknowledging – perhaps surprisingly, given his remarkable gift for self-belief – that his quest to win his eighth Tour de France was over. Yet the story was a long way from finished. And so, for that matter, was Gibney's film.
Armstrong failed to win, and the elaborately constructed narrative of his life was about to be utterly undermined. In January 2013, he admitted to Oprah Winfrey what he had so strenuously denied for so long, that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, year after year.
The film Gibney was making no longer had any currency. The Armstrong Lie is the documentary he made in the wake of the collapse of The Road Back. It is an act of retrieval, and in some ways quite a skilful one.
So what does he give us? Is there anything left for him, in the wake of USADA's investigations and Oprah's revelations? How does he return to a story that many people are likely to feel has already been told?
He gets some post-Oprah time with Armstrong – two separate encounters, one just after the television interview, one a few months later. This is the footage that bookends the documentary. Gibney also decides to do the narration himself, and to reveal some of the issues he had in making and then remaking his movie. It is possible the film might have been stronger if he had explored this in more detail, if he had really laid bare the before-and-after process, as well as the realisation that his subject had been deceiving him.
He admits he became caught up in the excitement of the race. He tells us that when he was filming Armstrong in 2009, many of the cycling fraternity assumed he was making a puff piece, and refused to talk to him. "I wasn't naive about past doping allegations," he says. There was, in fact, quite a bit of evidence that had accumulated by then, although it had been fiercely contested by Armstrong, who was very quick to take legal action. There was a code of silence in the sport about doping. But Armstrong did something no one else did. He went on the attack.
It is not entirely clear how Gibney was planning to handle these allegations in his first version of the documentary. In one of the more surprising coups from that time, the Armstrong camp agreed to let him interview the enigmatic Dr Michele Ferrari, the controversial sports scientist who masterminded Armstrong's training for many years. The Armstrong Lie presents an interesting perspective on him, and on his role in the science of doping.
Several of the people who wouldn't speak to Gibney in 2009 are now talking heads in The Armstrong Lie, reflecting on the individual and the sporting culture of which he was a part. There is not much that's new in the film, although there are some intriguing moments that heighten or clarify the extent of Armstrong's interest in manipulation and control. This is not a story about doping, it is a story about power, someone observes; Armstrong exercised and abused it, with the complicity of many in the cycling world.
Armstrong was, and still is, an accomplished storyteller in his own right. Over the years he devised the image of himself as a winner, a cancer survivor, a philanthropist. He even managed to incorporate allegations about his doping into the mythology, depicting himself as a man who simply didn't care about haters and naysayers. Our last glimpse of the man in The Armstrong Lie is a disconcerting one: it is of a man who, despite everything, is still working on his own narrative, still trying to recast the story to his own advantage.