By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 8, 2013 at 12:30PM
Lance Armstrong's biking career is over, but its history leaves many questions unanswered. Alex Gibney's troubling documentary "The Armstrong Lie" addresses many of them while positioning its main character at the center of an enigmatic drama. In 2009, Gibney was set to direct an inspirational portrait of Armstrong's comeback following his retirement, but the project hit a wall when accusations that the cyclist had been doping over the years eventually led Armstrong to confess his misdeeds. Taking these new admissions into account, Gibney's finished movie is at war with itself, chronicling both Armstrong's successes and his sins, embodying the contradictions of its subject.
Narrating the story in first-person, Gibney builds "The Armstrong Lie" around the history of his project. Opening with Armstrong talking about the fallout of his admissions, the narrative opens in the immediate aftermath of his poorly-received Oprah Winfrey interview this past January; Gibney explains that Armstrong agreed to tape a final discussion with the filmmaker as penance for misleading him in earlier conversations.
As a result, "The Armstrong Lie" echoes Gibney's last document of a fallen public figure, 2010's "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," by shifting back and forth between the pinnacle of the man's success and his public downfall. The difference here is that the filmmaker has experienced the lie firsthand on multiple occasions, imbuing the project with the ire of the personal frustrations experienced by many of Armstrong's fans.
Watching the movie, it's impossible not to get wrapped up in Gibney's autopsy of Armstrong's confidence streak. So much of the footage finds Armstrong committed to his lies that the project transcends its roots in the sports genre as it becomes a larger investigation into the psychological motives behind Armstrong's fabrications. The full weight of his dishonesty is reflected in his searing gaze, which Gibney captures so many times at the height of its power, before the whole enterprise came crashing down.
Aided by candid testimonies from several former teammates and industry professionals who worked with Armstrong over the years, Gibney comes up with a compelling diagnosis for Armstrong's behavior by rooting it in both the competitive nature of his personality and, more generally, the history of the sport: Italian physician and cycling coach Michele Ferrari is positioned as the evil mastermind behind modern cycling's clandestine doping schemes, several of which fueled Armstrong's Tour de France wins (which were stripped of him last year).
Ferrari's shadowy influence on players extends far beyond Armstrong himself, and his influence implies that the entire sport has been afflicted by rule-breaking as a necessity to compete in the big leagues. Gibney never provides the counter-example of a talented player who has never doped. Armstrong may have misled untold millions, but he's also the face of a much larger problem.
Does that make Armstrong the victim as well as the culprit of his crimes? "The Armstrong Lie" foregrounds this duality: As one player puts it, the "moral relativism" of the sport forces those driven to make the most of its possibilities to seek out its shadiest extremes. Gibney's exploration contains far greater nuance than any Oprah-level exclusive, resulting in an achievement that strives to be definitive above all else. Armstrong would at least admit that much.
But so far, according to multiple sources associated with the production, he has refused to see it. That's too bad: Speaking to Gibney in footage shot earlier this year, Armstrong seems capable of taking a measured approach to analyzing his vast pileup of mistakes, so he should be capable of appreciating Gibney's cogent analysis of the rider's rise and fall, which provides a more credible explanation than Armstrong could provide in his own words.
He might also find "The Armstrong Lie" educational: Faced with lawsuits demanding as much as $100 million in damages from the U.S. Postal Service-sponsored team, Armstrong faces the worst road to recovery since he survived cancer. He might be irredeemable at this point, but "The Armstrong Lie" shows that he nevertheless has a firm grip on the dynamics of the sport, and so his talents aren't entirely dismissible.
Gibney outlines the strategies involved in team-based cycling and proves, through careful analysis of Tour de France footage, that Armstrong was capable of thinking through the competition in the heat of the action. Could he find a second life as a trainer? An anti-doping advocate? A whistleblower like his fellow disgraced players? "The Armstrong Lie" makes it clear that Armstrong will never compete in cycling again, but that doesn't mean he has to go into hiding.
However, it does prove that he still has plenty of penance left if he desires any kind of return to the public eye. Aside from the chemicals he injected into his body -- and the blood he temporarily removed from it, in one particularly gnarly illegal procedure known as blood doping -- Armstrong also bullied and slandered anyone who attempted to stand in his way. Targets included former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, both of whom testified against Armstrong and faced his wrath when he spoke out against them in the media. "The Armstrong Lie" reckons with this tendency as well: Armstrong not only committed to breaking the rules, he helped enforce the system that allowed him to get away with it.
There's no doubt that he has considered the wicked nature of his behavior many times over, but Armstrong is also trapped in his own troubled headspace. "The Armstrong Lie" extracts his string of wrongdoings by arranging them into an enthralling, if not revelatory, story. This fresh positioning should appeal to Armstrong's instincts as a storyteller himself. As he told Gibney earlier this year, the public has seen "two narratives" of Armstrong without getting the full meal; with "The Armstrong Lie," a third narrative has arrived to inch toward some semblance of the big picture.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics released "The Armstrong Lie" in limited release this week. The film has already generated enough press that it seems poised to perform well over the next several weeks and remain in contention during awards season.