The Armstrong Lie
2013, R, 122 min. Directed by Alex Gibney.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013
People think that their inner bullshit detectors are finely tuned instruments that protect them from the ignominies of gullibility and naivete. To discover that your bullshit detector failed to sound an appropriate alarm leaves oneself open to questions of fallibility and disgrace – the disgrace belonging not only to the perpetrator of the lie but to the recipient as well. Falling for the lie is to be a colluder in perpetuating an untruth, an obviously uncomfortable position – especially for someone like the Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney, whose best-known films (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) are predicated on ferreting out the truth from the spin in the news stories of the day.
”He lied to my face,” is the frequent refrain from the media pundits and interviewers who have interviewed dishonored Tour de France medalist Lance Armstrong over the years (as if it would have been better if eye-to-eye contact were absent from the bicyclist’s fiercely repeated denials of doping on the competition trail). The journalists’ inner bullshit detectors were duped and their professional dubiousness was lulled by the charisma of the athlete and the too-good-to-be-true fantasy they all wanted to believe. They had looked into Lance Armstrong’s eyes and believed they saw the truth. Then Armstrong pulled the rug out from under them, confessing in 2013 to years of doping, and all eyes were wounded with the stigmata.
At the point Armstrong started to come clean about his doping once he was stripped of his seven Tour titles in 2012, Gibney already had finished a film about the cyclist, which had been shelved while awaiting some resolution of the international doping charges. Armstrong had already earned his titles before retiring from the sport in 2005. Yet in 2009, Armstrong staged a Tour comeback and producer Frank Marshall and Gibney went along for the ride, crafting what they hoped would be an inspirational film – The Road Back – about Armstrong’s indomitable will and charitable deeds. After the (bull)shit hit the fan, the decision was made to rework the shelved film from an inspirational saga into a cautionary tale.
Having unfettered access to Armstrong during the 2009 Tour and a face-to-face sit-down with him in Austin hours after his national confession to Oprah, The Armstrong Lie comes across more a good save than a muckraking piece of journalism. The documentary goes into great detail about the many lies and cover-ups, as well as Armstrong’s decimation of all former teammates who dared contradict his lies. Yet for all the detail, very little will come across as new to followers of the scandal over the years. All the usual suspects give testimony to Gibney, yet only Armstrong’s Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari, comes across as a true revelation. In fact, the film’s truculent tone often sounds as outraged and sputtering as the title of an Al Franken book: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. There’s almost something Shakespearean in the way Gibney fashions Armstrong into a flawed hero, undone by his colossal hubris. Or, perhaps a modernist hero who functions in his own realm of moral relativism. You can hear Armstrong declare that he has only told one big lie, and not lots of little ones, as if one thing is a moral improvement over the other. It leaves the viewer to ponder what to make of a disgraced champion, who nevertheless is a great athlete and charitable inspiration. Next time someone tries to sell you the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, find out if there’s still a bike trail in Austin that’s in need of renaming.
See “The Anatomy of a Lie,” Nov. 8, for an interview with Alex Gibney.