Once, in the middle of the 2004 Tour de France bicycling race, the nine-man American team, led by Lance Armstrong, pretended that their bus had broken down en route to their hotel. As fans and the international press stood outside, cheering and taking pictures, the team, hidden behind high, tinted windows, received blood transfusions that "enhanced" their subsequent performance in the race. In the new, unauthorized documentary, The Armstrong Lie, which was initially sanctioned by its subject, director and narrator Alex Gibney relates such events with a reticence that matches the larger world's reluctance to accept the truth about Armstrong and his use of performance-enhancing drugs and transfusions. As the director freely admits, Gibney, too, wanted to believe in the fatherless guy from Plano, Texas, who beat cancer at 25, established a $300 million cancer support foundation, and, oh, by the way, won the Tour de France seven times in a row.
Winning those races was either miraculous or bogus, and for well over a decade, Armstrong and a seemingly complicit International Cycling Union (UCI) — whose officials knew that doping was rampant in the sport — nurtured a hero narrative that encouraged the world to believe in the miracle. Belief is good for business. To use a phrase from the film, The Armstrong Lie is a "myth-buster." It's wholly necessary, brilliantly executed, and a complete bummer. Armstrong's lie, our belief — which is sadder?
Many say that Armstrong sealed his doom by coming out of retirement for the 2009 Tour, thereby angering his enemies, but you have to wonder why he then also granted full access to a filmmaker as penetrating as Gibney. In the past decade, the Oscar-winner has made a dazzling array of hyper-smart docs, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and the devastating Catholic Church sexual abuse exposé Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012). Their common denominator is the filmmaker's moral outrage at powerful men who tell lies. Nonetheless, Armstrong clearly got off on tempting fate, and besides, life was still glorious in 2009 when Gibney accepted an offer from Armstrong's friend, Hollywood producer Frank Marshall (E.T., the Indiana Jones films, the Bourne series), to make an "inspirational" film about the biker's latest attempt to defy the odds. Lance Armstrong: The Road Back was to be narrated by Matt Damon.
But Armstrong didn't win. "It fucked up your documentary," he tells Gibney with a satisfied grin, and indeed, Gibney moved on. Three years later, prompted by a growing chorus of allegations initiated by Armstrong's embittered former teammate Floyd Landis, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency concluded that Armstrong had engaged in "the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." UCI officials, suddenly blustering with outrage, promptly stripped Armstrong of his seven titles. The Armstrong Lie opens with an interview Gibney conducted three hours after the cyclist confessed his sins to Oprah Winfrey on her OWN network this past January. Interestingly, that moment, post-Oprah, is the one time that Armstrong seems truly humbled.
Armstrong's rise and fall is a dizzying whirl of teammate names, scientific "doping" jargon, and the incessant drone of his own denials. It would all be exhausting if Gibney didn't understand one key thing: Everyone loves a race. The Armstrong Lie swings back and forth in time, but its fulcrum is the extraordinary footage Gibney and ace cinematographer Maryse Alberti shot at the 2009 Tour. A never-ending stream of archival footage depicts Armstrong's glory days and their attendant controversies, but Gibney always turns back to that race, which looks both insane and beautiful.
Was Armstrong doping in 2009? He swears not, and with his drawn face and sunken body, struggling up horribly steep mountain terrain, he certainly appears to have become the one thing he never wanted to be: a mere mortal. Yet, there does come a day when he rallies, brilliantly and improbably, and Gibney, armed with the wisdom of hindsight, begins to doubt that Armstrong was "clean." He doubts, and yet, like those of us watching, then and now, he hopes, just a little. You can hear it in his voice.
Lance Armstrong says that he sleeps soundly. In this regard, the fallen icon is probably telling an absolute truth. He told Winfrey and later, Gibney, that he's sorry (sort of) for cheating, sorry for lying about it, and sorry for viciously defaming friends and teammates in order to protect the lie. (He was a sports-world version of The Godfather's Michael Corleone, baby-faced and ruthless.) Maybe he means every word, but what's missing in Armstrong's present-day demeanor is the one thing that often keeps people with more modest sins tossing and turning at night: regret.