Director: Alex Gibney
Duration: 124 minutes (US)
Is there a name in sport that offers a more convenient shortcut to a definition of corruption than that of Lance Armstrong? The man’s fall from grace was quicker than a snapped bungee rope. Hero to zero? Well, not quite. The man even wriggles from that baleful classification.
What the documentarian, Alex Gibney, has astutely constructed here is a quietly damning indictment of Armstrong through the mirage of a feigned intimacy. Whether this is entirely deliberate is open to debate. After all, the reality quickly becomes clear; Lance Armstrong is not an easy man to ‘know’. He is certainly not a man to be messed with – that much is evident from his dealings with his peers and teammates. However, there is also enough testimony here to support the notion that he could be a loyal compatriot when so inclined.
Originally, Gibney had set out to cover the big 2009 comeback; Armstrong’s return from the retirement that he had announced subsequent to winning the Tour de France for a record breaking seventh consecutive occasion in 2005.
Why did Lance wish to come back? This was a world record holder who had done that rarest of things; he had bowed out at the top. He had nothing to prove. Sure, there had been murmurs of substance abuse, but this was not the fight he was fighting. He was merely competing on track and on wheels.
In 2012, the news of Armstrong’s doping came to light. He was banned from racing with permanent effect. Poring over the footage already in the can, Gibney was angered and feeling deserving of an explanation, so he returned to Armstrong to confront him. Reluctantly, Armstrong sat before the camera for another grilling. This is all present in ‘The Armstrong Lie’. And it is fascinating.
Whilst falling shy of the heights that would make this an essential documentary, there is enough to commend. After all, this is tale worthy of Shakespeare. A man who was enamoured and corrupted by a culture, seduced by the dark voices of his own nihilism, and drugged by his love of power, esteem and control.
However, there is still a skill in relaying matters with measure and control. Alex Gibney avoids the pitfall of a Michael Moore agenda-driven propaganda piece. He has comfort in the knowledge that most people already have their opinion set regarding this man. He need not stir revulsion, support or judgement. This allows breathing space for a timeline reproduction of events and to look back with the benefit of hindsight. This is a curious joy.
The plummet of the Armstrong name remains a disappointment. A balloon popped on a transcendental story of hope. Here was a cancer survivor who had become the supreme cycling athlete of his – or any other – generation. Unfortunately, behind the veils, the sad reality is that doping was routine and frequent. It is all too easy to now mock and despair at how gullible we all were as to his invincibility.
Once again, the adage rings true; if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Sadly for us, this old cliché strikes its stake of truth into the heart of reality. Again.
Will we ever learn?
The Armstrong Lie is in selected cinemas on 31st January 2014.
You can see the trailer here: