Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alex Gibney.
Lance Armstrong is something of a modern American hero. A former teenage cycling champion and cancer survivor he won an unprecedented seven consecutive Tours de France before retiring from the sport in 2005. However, his achievements were always surrounded by whispers of banned substances, illegal drugs and blood transfusions aimed at sustaining his endurance during the most famous and gruelling of bicycle races. But Armstrong was always able to use his wealth, power and celebrity status to deflect these rumours and discredit those who branded him a cheat.
And his efforts to give himself a competitive edge over his rivals may well have gone undetected were it not for his comeback to the race in 2009. Was it hubris, or an arrogant belief that he couldn’t be caught?
Veteran documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side, Enron, Client 9, Silence In The House Of God, We Steal Secrets, etc) set out to make a film about Armstrong’s comeback to the Tour de France, and he was granted unprecedented access to team Armstrong during his preparations to return to the race that had made his reputation. Gibney followed him for four years and was initially a fan and supporter of Armstrong and his achievements. But Gibney got caught up in a completely different story after some shock revelations about his use of illegal performance enhancing substances like EPO and blood transfusions.
The film was originally to be called The Road Back, but following the revelations from Armstrong himself, the title was changed. The Armstrong Lie opens with that now famous 2013 interview he did with Oprah Winfrey, in which he delivered a series of “yes” or “no” answers to some probing questions and confessed to milions of viewers that he had actually cheated by using performance enhancing drugs. Gibney was incensed because he believed that Armstong had lied openly to him during the making of that 2009 documentary. He set out to confront Armstong and get him to reveal all for his cameras.
These candid admissions changed the nature of Gibney’s documentary, from one of admiration for his achievements to one of openly condemnation for his behaviour. But Gibney also points the finger at the sport’s governing body which tried to protect its star, an attractive and charismatic champion who has helped to raise the profile of cycling internationally and who was raising money for charity as well. In October 2012,following an intensive investigation by the USADA, Armstrong was stripped of his seven titles and banned from cycling forever by the sport’s administrative body.
As with his documentary on Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, we can see Gibney turn on his subject through the course of the film, which follows his spectacular fall from grace with a sort of savage pleasure. Armstrong comes across as obsessed with winning at all costs, unremorseful and unapologetic for his behaviour, vindictive and seemingly evasive. His main defence is that everyone else was doing it, and it was the only way to stay ahead of the pack. There are plenty of revealing, never before seen interviews, with Armstrong himself, although we can never be sure of what is the truth.
But even more telling are the interviews with many of his former teammates and embittered rivals, like Frankie Andreu, managers, and even Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferrari, who emerge from the shadows to break the code of silence with shocking revelations of his blatant, illegal substance abuse.
Working with a team of editors, Gibney has assembled plenty of archival footage from the 2009 race itself, which will appeal to fans of the sport.
The film and its exploration of the culture of doping within major sports and the use of illegal performing enhancement techniques to give a sportsman an unfair advantage over his rivals will also resonate strongly with local audiences, especially given the ongoing, sorry supplements saga that is dogging both the AFL and NRL here in Australia.
The Armstrong Lie provides an fascinating insight into one of the more intriguing scandals of recent years, and the rise and fall of a flawed sporting hero. A minor quibble though is that at over 120 minutes, the film is far too long and a little repetitive, a fault common to many of Gibney’s documentaries.