The Armstrong Lie – Alex Gibney tells the truth while Lance Armstrong continues the lie. (Film review)
Something has gone slightly askew with The Armstrong Lie and its difficult to know exactly what, though the relationship between Alex Gibney and Lance Armstrong, something Gibney talks up much stronger than Armstrong, appears to be one of personal disappointment on Gibney’s part, and par for the course on the part of Armstrong. Lance Armstrong, like most of the other bike riders we hear and read about in the Tour de France in the early part of this century took performance enhancing drugs in order to secure his multiple wins, only to be stripped of his yellow Jersey’s when the truth came out. However it wasn’t the doping that became the greatest scandal, it was the lie Armstrong told repeatedly and the way he savaged whistle blowers in the press and in the courts that strikes at the heart of the films message. Whats odd about the documentary, is Gibney seems to be shocked that Armstrong lied – not to the world – but to HIM personally, and too much of the film is dedicated to his attempts to right this particular wrong.
Alex Gibney makes great documentaries. In recent years, he’s made the distressuing Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks, and The Last Gladiators, the third which I have not seen, but the first two are well made interesting films, with a heart wrenching expose at the heart of the former. His Julian Asange portrait is particularly unflattering, despite having journalistic integrity at its core, so it’s a bit of a wonder that he chose to remain so gentle when it comes to the extremely odd Lance Armstrong.
Part of the problem, and one can’t help wondering if this is Gibney’s real issue, is that the story is already broken and it was broken by someone other than Gibney (Oprah), under his nose as Gibney was preparing to make a very different sort of film about Lance Armstrong. Perhaps the incredulity that he was duped along with everyone else, when several others were not sits a little uncomfortable for the man who exposed The Smartest guys in the Room and the pedophile priests. While The Armstrong Lie carries all the trappings of the typically excellent Gibney documentary, it doesn’t have a punchline (as I said, someone already stole that from him) and given the kind of person Lance Armstrong is, the film doesn’t have a heart either. Gibney works hard to make it interesting, but with Ben Bloodwell’s rather pedestrian cinematography (compared particularly with Maryse Alberti’s dark suspenseful work on Wikileaks) and some odd editing in the middle of the film, it’s stretched to breaking point in its two hour length with a strangely saggy middle.
Where the film its most interesting is when it veers away from Armstrong and focuses on the Tour de France itself, and definitely more in this arena would have been preferable. Armstrong didn’t just take drugs to improve his performance, he gave himself on the road blood transfusions, packets of his own blood filled with more air, something many of the athletes of the worlds most difficult sporting event were doing, an action which could move an athlete forward from the pack by as much as ten percent. Gibney’s detail regarding the rest of the competitors and the ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) is uncharacteristically scant. It’s where the real story now resides and holds the key question, how many other winners have doped and why has the sport been so difficult to clean up? The Armstrong Lie addresses some of these questions, but always through the lens of how Armstrong got away with his lie for so long, rather than looking more at the sport and how it could ever have created a creature like Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong himself, despite all he has done (and the film doesn’t hold back in that regard) comes off fairly clean, which is also uncharacteristic for Gibney. Gibney’s keeps his camera firmly planted on Armstrong’s poker face, reliving the multiple lies he told, almost as if to emphasize how many people were duped, himself included. However, Gibney’s account of their relationship is one of extreme disappointment, that he almost made a film about the man’s comeback Tour de France, which would have been devastating for Gibney’s career if Armstrong outed after it was made. Gibney may still be reeling from just how close he came to perpetuating and feeding Armstrong’s lie, he may feel let down by someone he can’t help admiring, or he just may still be in shock that he could be so close and still miss it all, but the fact remains, he repeatedly thinks we’re interested in what went on between the two men, when there is no real story there to tell. Lance Armstrong lied to me just as he lied to you, so it means nothing to me that he lied to Gibney – but it seems to be something Gibney can’t get over.
The real story isn’t actually in Lance Armstrong, who is remarkably dull given how incredible his tale is, it is in the sport that built him, and as I said above, too little of this is explored. Is Lance Armstrong an enigma, or are there many of his ilk running around in the sport just as there are many who dope in order to try to win? This question is never addressed, sublimated over and over again for a kind of wide eyed incredulity that Armstrong could have lied at all. The question of how he got away with it isn’t even terribly interesting, because he didn’t – he just bullied everyone brave enough to speak out. The bottom line is, even with all the hoopla, even with all the controversy, even with all the fitness and all the win’s, Lance Armstrong is one of the worlds biggest bores and any camera focused on him goes to sleep too early along with the rest of us. The Armstrong Lie still carries all the trappings of a brilliant Gibney documentary in some respects – the great intimacy, and revealing slow build through interview techniques – but without a real story, it all falls quite flat.