"Doping" and "duping" go hand in hand these days when it comes to discussing Lance Armstrong, the world-famous cyclist whose success approached miracle status. After beating long-odds cancer, Armstrong took an unprecedented seven Tour de France titles, but the hero now stands disgraced, caught in what a new documentary calls "The Armstrong Lie."
The title of Alex Gibney's film derives from a now-infamous 2005 headline ("Le Mensonge Armstrong") in the French sports newspaper "L'Equipe." The paper directly alleged what many had already assumed must be true: that banned substances had fueled Armstrong's extraordinary endurance and speed. "L'Equipe" was ahead of the curve, of course: Armstrong's insistent denials maintained the lie his fans and the media so urgently wanted to believe, until that became impossible in 2012.
In the film, Gibney explains via narration that he had intended a film about Armstrong's 2009 comeback to the Tour de France after four years of retirement and at the age of 38. What a story that could be: "The Road Back," he called it. Like Armstrong's blinkered fans, Gibney had heard all the accusations, and though he didn't discount them entirely, he wanted to believe (or so he says). Then new allegations set off a chain reaction that culminated in Armstrong being stripped of his titles and publicly confessing to Oprah.
Due to the changing nature of the story, Gibney frames his film as being somewhat catch as catch can, and it is. He explains to us his revised methodology in the film itself: He was forced to reexamine his all-access footage from 2009 in the new light of the exposed "Armstrong lie." He also weaves through the film expert commentary from cycling journalists and former teammates, as well as interviews with Armstrong from before and after being barred for life from cycling.
It's a bit odd hearing Gibney make himself part of the story, even as marginally as he does, but he positions himself as both fan surrogate ("He had lied to me too," Gibney says in his director's statement) and privileged journalistic observer ("To my face, even"). And it'd be fair to ask why this subject is worthy of two full hours of investigation, especially as Gibney winds up belaboring some of his points at that length.
But the film does make an impression as a face-to-face character study of Armstrong's all-consuming ambition (what one wag dubs "that urge to dominate") and the confident charisma, if not sociopathy, that enabled his prevarications.
Gibney also educates about the details of doping, the "moral relativism" so pervasive in the age of juiced athletics, and the willful ignorance that attends it. As Armstrong's former teammate Floyd Landis puts it, "Look, at some point, people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn't real."
Rated R for language. Two hours, three minutes.