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Non-Review Review: The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie is about a lot of things. It’s nominally about Lance Armstrong’s attempted come back in 2009, and then about how it was all one big lie once the doping allegations became impossible for the athlete to deny. Those are, in a way, the least interesting aspects of Alex Gibney’s documentary. Instead, the film works best as an exploration of power and vested interest, as well as an exploration of narrative and how that narrative is manipulated and shaped to suit agendas.

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The documentary is aware of its own nature as a distorted and manipulated narrative. Gibney’s triumphant documentary about Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France becomes untenable at several points. “I’m sorry I f$%!ed up your documentary,” Armstrong confesses when it becomes clear that he can’t win the 2009 race, sabotaging the documentary’s obvious “happy” ending. However, even after the events at the Tour de France, the narrative becomes even more unstable and impossible.

The proof of Armstrong’s systematic and historic doping undermines the story that Gibney was telling, and so the narrative distorts and warps. Footage shot to validate Armstrong, and to celebrate his triumphant return – with Gibney readily confessing that he got caught up in Armstrong’s own redemptive story – becomes something completely different in hindsight. The Armstrong Lie is about the stories that people tell (to themselves and others) and how people try to maintain control of those stories.

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The movie begins and ends with two short snippets of conversation with Armstrong in which he attempts to wrest back control of his own story, a story that seems to have gotten away from him. At the start, he asserts that he is the only person who can tell that particular story; at the end, he stubbornly insists that the end has yet to be written. Of course, this isn’t Armstrong’s film. This is Alex Gibney’s story. Gibney narrates the documentary and inserts himself into the story, documenting his own shifting role in this unfolding saga and his rapidly-changing perspective of Armstrong’s carefully crafted mythology.

Gibney is candid enough about the film’s perspective, and where it comes from. He makes it clear that this documentary is just as much of a story as the mythology Armstrong built up around himself. The film allows room for Armstrong’s justifications and the context of his actions, but Gibney is too smart to allow Armstrong to drive the story. Gibney landed a follow-up interview with Armstrong in 2013, but it’s blended into the background a bit. Armstrong’s extended interview is just cut into a sea of other voices, never allowed to assert itself over the documentary.

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More cynical pundits might attack the film for never quite going after Armstrong, for never quite getting the boot in properly. While the film refuses to buy into his rationalisations and justifications, they are given some space in this story – at the expense of material that might be even more damning or more critical of the sports star. This isn’t a hatchet job on Armstrong, as many might expect given how thoroughly Armstrong betrayed Gibney’s trust in 2009.

That’s because Armstrong’s guilt isn’t the issue here. It’s taken as granted. Armstrong’s guilt is presented as an unequivocal fact. Instead, Gibney is more interested in how the lie was perpetrated for so long and so confidently. After all, as the documentary pointed out, Armstrong would likely have been home free had he not attempted to make a come-back in 2009. Narrowly evading a drug bust on his last tournament, one might imagine the cyclist would be cautious about returning. Instead, he was brazen.

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(This is something that the documentary never explores quite as well as it might. There are any number of incredibly bold and risky choices that Armstrong made that seem absurd in hindsight. Accepting sponsorship from the American Postal Service made his doping an indictable offence rather than a mere breach of contract, for example. The documentary simply doesn’t have time to delve into the interesting excesses of Armstrong’s hubris in 2009.)

And The Armstrong Lie really looks at the culture that made this possible – the way that Armstrong readily lied to protect himself, and aggressively went after anybody who dared to question him. The footage is quite striking, watching Armstrong hide behind his charity work or use his personal history to deflect criticism, while bullying those who presumed to speak out of turn. The story of Lance Armstrong was something that everybody bought into, a story that it was in everybody’s interest to maintain.

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In a way, it feels like a companion piece to many of the more high-profile commentaries on wealth and self-image in America that have been released over the past years. Films like The Great Gatsby, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street were all tales about success stories that are never quite true. They are simply beautiful lies; lies that everybody bought into, because they make people feel good.

Just like those people giving Jordan Belfort money wanted to believe they could get rich quick, or just like the cast of American Hustle tell themselves (and each other) the lies they need to survive, The Armstrong Lie makes it clear that Armstrong himself may have driven the myth, but he wasn’t alone in perpetuating it. He was enabled by a sporting body enjoying the high profile exposure he brought and the revenue he generated. He was sheltered by team members engaging in the same practise. Most damningly, he was embraced by a public that wanted so hard to believe in this redemption.

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Gibney’s documentary is fascinating, if a little overly technical at times. It’s a bit strange to devote so much time to a post mortem of the 2009 Tour de France when we know both the outcome and the fact that it was ultimately invalidated. That time could have been better spent digging a little deeper into some of the more interesting things alluded to over the course of the documentary. Was the fact that Lance Armstrong was American play into his downfall? Would this still be going on if Armstrong were a European rider? What is the UCI doing, if anything, about the implications raised by this case?

Still, while Gibney doesn’t necessarily delve into some of the many interesting tangents as deeply as we might like, the resulting documentary is a pretty compelling examination of modern myth-making and the culture of deception into which Armstrong was able to embed himself. It’s a thoughtful and insightful piece, if a little too focused on the particulars of the myth it’s trying to demolish.

2 Responses

  1. The Lance Armstrong is for me a fascinating follow up to the Michelle de Bruin (née Smith) case. Smith is not as globally famous as Arstrong but she is certainly a fallen national hero in the Armstrong manner. I remember thinking at the time – and I still think so now – that there was an unpleasant nationalist undertone to her villification by the American media for beating their golden girl Janet Evans. That she was guilty (probably – unlike armstrong she still denies it) does not mean that that weren’t other, more petty motives involved on behalf of her initial accusers at least.

    Now as it happens I have nothing but respect for Gibney and have a very negative view of Armstrong but it does make me consider what other factors and prejudices are at play in international sports doping, beyond the actual athletes themselves.

    • Yep. I don’t want to sound as if I am sympathetic to Armstrong. I’m not at all. But I am sort of curious as to whether the sport would have ever actually cleaned house, if it hadn’t have been for the US Postal Service’s investigation into it. And the fact that Armstrong did come to the sport as an outsider, did that weigh into the fact that he was the focal point of all this? (After all, he wasn’t even the highest placing doper in 2009.) Again, not at all sympathetic to him, but more suspicious of the surrounding sports and culture than I think the documentary was. (Although the documentary was hardly flattering either.)

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