‘The Armstrong Lie’ Review: A Too-Generously-Unbiased View of Lance's Tour de Doping

'The Armstrong Lie' Review: A Too-Generously-Unbiased View of Lance's Tour de Doping

Director Alex Gibney approaches his subject with the same sort of emotional detachment that Armstrong brings to his confessions

It seems almost impossible to look at the very public story of Lance Armstrong without holding some sort of opinion about the disgraced cyclist. But filmmaker Alex Gibney remains so remarkably dispassionate throughout the duration of “The Armstrong Lie” that his documentary about Armstrong’s rise and fall fails to provide meaningful perspective on the motives, much less impact of his many, many deceptions.

Approaching its subject with the same sort of emotional detachment that Armstrong brings to his confessions, “The Armstrong Lie” is generously unbiased, chronicling the events in the racer’s life with the contrition of a transgressor who expects absolution without actually earning forgiveness.

See video: Lance Armstrong Comes Clean in ‘The Armstrong Lie’ Trailer

Initially enlisted to document Armstrong’s 2009 comeback, Gibney plays the cyclist’s No. 1 fan, betrayed by revelations of drug use and malfeasance, who reconnects to confront his admitted “hero” for lying to him. That Armstrong agreed to be interviewed again initially seems like a testament to his shame, but it eventually proves to be another forum for him to shape his narrative – a mea culpa to point at on the road to inevitable redemption.

armstronglie2Gibney juxtaposes Armstrong’s post-scandal interview with a mostly straightforward chronology of his early years, his rise to fame and his repeated triumphs competing in the Tour de France.

But like Nicholson Baker’s novel “Mezzanine,” footnotes and revelations eventually overshadow the poetic narrative of his accomplishments, and Gibney juxtaposes the boastful victor with interviews detailing not only his repeated drug use, but his relentless lying, and the denigration of anyone interested in questioning his bona fides.

Also read: Filmmaker Alex Gibney Accuses Pope: ‘Sexual-Abuse Scandal Goes to the Top of the Vatican’

But the “humbled” Armstrong too easily manages to step outside himself to acknowledge his wrongdoing and seldom expresses any compelling sincerity or remorse. Moreover, the film seems complicit in his “don’t hate the player, hate the game” attitude about doping, which personal opinions aside, fails to justify his own metastasized dishonesty, and especially the vindictiveness with which he destroyed the lives and livelihoods of his opponents.

There’s a broader critique made in the film about the worldwide deification of athletes and the lengths to which those athletes – and their benefactors — will go to protect that larger-than-life heroism. But Gibney’s personal disappointment, and his focus on the hows rather than the whys of Armstrong’s deceit, eventually undermines the possibility of finding an answer to the film’s fundamental question – namely, what drove Armstrong to mount the comeback that effectively toppled his mythic success.

See video: Lance Armstrong Facing $12M Lawsuit Over Doping Admission

Even without a personal axe to grind, it’s hard to hear the cyclist’s story and not think him a total villain, but the film miraculously – almost irresponsibly – ends without offering much judgment. Because if there is a “real” Armstrong, he remains as on-message, in control, and enigmatic at the end of the film as he did at the beginning, his motivations safely ascribed to obvious patterns of behavior, and a “we’re as responsible as he is” atmosphere of competition.

  • davyjc

    I saw this film and agree with this review. Gibney showed more outrage about the subjects of his other documentaries combined than he showed towards Armstrong. He was disapppointed that his friend and hero lied to him and to the world but he never really showed it. And then Gibney started to make Armstrong's point: that everyone is bad so what he did can't be that bad. If that is the basis of how one looks at competition in sports, then what's the point in watching? It's an overlong film but Gibney could have at least once showed an emotion, yelled at Armstrong, his hero. The guy is a dirty cheat who will never come to terms with what he has really done. And Gibney let him off the hook.

    • docsavage

      Dirty cheat? Come on… you can actually write that when we live in an absolutely morally and ethically bankrupt country and culture. How naieve can you be? Sports are then rife with dirty cheats you probably praise and hate daily.

      • davyjc

        And you know you don't actually believe that.

        Nothing is absolute but to knowingly accept and forgive the worse in every aspects of society says more about you than anything else.

    • Pam

      Agreeing to do this documentary, it seems, LA is trying to remain relevant. His ego doesn't care if he lied or not. Its a chance for him to guide watchers into blaming the sport and not him.

  • Jake

    Wasn't the original intent of a doc supposed to be to document evidence dispassionately and let the audience decide its opinion based on said evidence? So, while this film may have erred in being an aplogist for LA, it would have been equally wrong to lambaste him. Present the facts and let the viewer decide. In this particular case, the facts would certainly do the job this reviewer apparently wants done.

    • davyjc

      It seems like the original intent was not only let the evidence speak for itself but also glee and confusion on why Armstrong would actually try to ride in 2009? He had won so much, what more did he have to prove except to possibly get caught. That is what seems to be the doc's original intent. His dispassionate approach after finding out the truth left me cold.

  • hrk310

    Who cares…..

  • al

    Nope, emotion has no place in a documentary. Armstrong did nothing more than his fellow competitors, albeit more efficiently. Those that were “destroyed” in speaking out against him all have skeletons of their own, are dubious characters to a person, and were clearly driven by spite and/or profit. Their rise to Sainthood is every bit as nauseating as the ultimate truth about Lance. Sure, in the end Lance is a jerk, like his detractors, but he did more as an athlete and a human being (regardless of his motivation) then all of them combined could have accomplished in 10 lifetimes. And for the press to offer a judgement in on the “sincerity” of his apology takes the cake.

    • Pam

      Are you getting paid or are you a relative. Okay, back up your statements. Tell me about the people he destroyed and there skeletons. Don't just tell me your opinions give me facts. The only fact here is Lance Armstrong lied and lied again until he was caught.