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Frank Marshall

Lance Armstrong in The Armstrong Lie, a documentary about the rise and fall of the cycling legend.

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★★★★✩

The Armstrong Lie

Directed by Alex Gibney

Rated R

Now playing

Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney began filming a documentary about Lance Armstrong’s comeback at the 2009 Tour de France, four years after his last win in 2005. But after the infamous 2013 interview with Oprah, Gibney realized that Armstrong had just been using his documentary to bolster his already crumbling story. Gibney was ultimately able to weave the damning footage of his previous interviews into a story of betrayal to deliver a play-by-play of one of the farthest falls from grace in the history of sports.

Although none of the previous allegations against him had stuck, in 2009, Armstrong said he wanted prove once and for all that he could compete without doping. At least, that was the story that Gibney was expecting to tell when he followed him on the three-week Tour de France. Armstrong said he thought another victory would somehow silence his critics, but his surprising performance actually made them dig deeper, and Gibney weaves the tale of the tightening noose around Armstrong’s legend with the suspense of a crime novel.

This documentary is not just a story of an athlete or even a glimpse into the world of cycling; the filmmaker tells his own story of being duped by Armstrong in the voiceovers. After the Oprah interview, Gibney tells Armstrong that he owes him at least an interview in explanation, which is woven with previous footage and interviews of Armstrong insisting that he never doped.

In retrospect, Armstrong doth protest too much: he certainly looks like a liar when the camera zooms in on him, though one wonders if those shots were originally framed to show his look-you-in-the-eyes honesty. The interview after Oprah is perhaps more emotional, but he still looks like he’s lying, or at least trying to win sympathy by claiming he was forced to defend his story as it grew out of proportion, as though he had gotten backed into a corner.

Armstrong said at one point that his comeback wasn’t about proving himself to his critics, but here his assertions aren’t even lies anymore, but sports clichés lived large.

Armstrong is not vindicated, but we can begin to see the outlines of his dark path. As Betsy Andreu, the wife of one of his former teammates, said, it wasn’t just the doping or even the lies, it was the abuse of power. Armstrong says that “ [I] like to win, but I can’t stand losing because that equals death”. One question the documentary asks repeatedly is why he bothered with the comeback. If he had simply retired, no more questions would have been asked. But several people interviewed, including former teammates and friends, suggest that he didn’t want to just win, he wanted to dominate.

Gibney does not let him dominate this documentary, though. He lets Frankie and Betsy Andreu speak of how Armstrong bullied them and how his associates and supporters did as well, including one exceptionally vicious answering machine message from a woman who worked for one of Armstrong’s sponsors. He tells the story of the massive alleged cover-up headed by Hein Verbruggen, then president of the body that governs sports cycling. Children with cancer were told that not only could they beat the disease, but like Lance, they could become better than they were, which shows an especially poignant facet of the lie. Gibney obtained the rare permission to interview the doctor who was helping Armstrong cheat by getting information from sources in antidoping labs so he could stay ahead of the curve — the doctor who continued to work with Armstrong surreptitiously even after he was convicted. Each of these sets of interviews becomes a riveting subplot of its own.

Armstrong says in one interview segment that people will “either forgive and forget and move on or they won’t.” It will be a shame if Gibney’s masterful documentary does not receive the attention it deserves because Armstrong has been forgotten but not forgiven, and the sports world long ago moved on.