Director Alex Gibney (2007 Oscar winner for the Afghanistan documentary Taxi to the Dark Side) decided that he wanted to make a film about cyclist Lance Armstrong's 2009 attempt to come back and win his eighth Tour de France. The filmmaker followed Armstrong and his entourage as they tried to win the race and (hopefully) end the rumors that Armstrong's success was due to his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong didn't win and things got a lot worse for Gibney, since the truth about Armstrong's doping finally came out while the director was editing his movie. Gibney shelved the whole thing for a couple of years but then somehow got Armstrong to sit down for more interviews after he (supposedly) confessed all to Oprah on her TV show. He reinterviewed a few principals from the original film, blended the footage together and came up with The Armstrong Lie (out now on Blu-ray and DVD).
This movie found limited success in theaters, mostly because the fans who used to love Lance have pretty much abandoned him in the wake of the brutal revelations. Now that's it's available for home viewing (you can also rent it from Amazon and iTunes), the movie's a must-see for anyone who wonders how Armstrong got away with it for so long, especially when there were people willing to talk almost as early as his first Tour de France win in 1999.
Gibney's film does a good job for offering up some insight: Armstrong became a world-class cyclist almost through sheer force of will after being raised by a single mother in small-town Texas. After a bout with testicular cancer knocked him off the tour, the medication recovery program he worked out with Dr. Michele Ferrari turned out to have benefits for his endurance and they used that doping program to turn Armstrong from a gifted sprinter to the kind of long-haul cyclist he needed to be to succeed in the Tour.
It's pretty obvious that Armstrong decided that everyone else in the sport was dirty and that he was just going to be better at doping than all of his competitors.
Gibney does a great job of putting the cheating in context but he never really questions whether what the sport defines as "doping" should be prohibited. From a truly strict perspective, vitamins are performance-enhancing substances. An athlete who changes his diet is usually doing so to create some kind of competitive advantage. Some pretty smart people are now suggesting that HGH should be legal in the NBA as an injury recovery aid.
Even if you've got sympathy for Armstrong's position on performance-enhancing drugs (and I do), what he did to the people over the years who tried to tell the truth is truly appalling. A big part of how he maintained the fiction for so long was how relentlessly he attacked his critics. How could a guy who fought back so forcefully be guilty?
Gibney cuts back and forth between 2012 contrite Lance and pre-2010 press conferences and interviews where Armstrong is taking apart his (former) friends and colleagues. Throw in a lot of shots on Lance flying around with an entourage on his private jet and it's hard to like the guy at all anymore.
Even if you factor in the PEDs, Armstrong might still be the greatest cyclist of all time. Unfortunately, the determination and drive that fueled his success on the bike has torched the rest of his life. Never mind all the money he's raised and all the cancer awareness he's promoted: none of those people want anything to do with him these days. He doesn't seem to realize that a lot cancer survivors feel betrayed by his insistence that he recovered and came back stronger than ever.
It's hard to figure out how Armstrong finds a way to redeem himself in the public eye. Gibney is as sympathetic as director as he could have hoped to have for this documentary and the filmmaker has a hard time finding anything redeeming at the end of this one. The Armstrong Lie is definitely worth a look.