Release: Friday, November 8, 2013 (limited)
In one of the more infamous press conferences involving the disgraced cyclist, Lance boldly made the claim that one of the reporters who had just asked him a tough question “was not worthy of the seat he sat in.” The irony of that biting statement is not lost on the rest of us, since no one anymore believes Lance is worthy of the one he once sat upon, either.
Before anything else is said, it should be noted that there’s not a great deal presented in this surprisingly dark documentary that the public hasn’t already known — unless you’re crawling out from under a massive rock, you are well aware this was one of, if not the greatest deceptions in all of sports history. And, spoiler alert, there’s no great argument presented that attempts to defend Lance. Based on the gravity of his actions and the way he went about handling the effects of them, he may be one of the most indefensible athletes in the era of televised sports.
An incredibly intimidating figure, Lance was not only infamously good at cheating an already broken system (plenty of bikers in the 90s were doping, and the film points out an alarming number of them), but perhaps the more important takeaway from all of this — the more disturbing motif of his life story — was his ability and desire to crush any opponent who dared cross him. If this happened on the bike, it would almost always guarantee you came in second place to the Plano, Texas-born rider. If ever you were unfortunate enough to blow the whistle on him off the bike, however, quite simply there’d be hell to pay. You’d rather Lance not know you.
Despite the air of familiarity, and the fact that the press has successfully plastered his image all over the globe by now, the quiet power of The Armstrong Lie is mostly derived from exclusive footage of the man himself. And, despite his true character, it feels almost like privilege to see Lance relaxing in a hotel room, discussing race strategies, considerations. . . such as how he’s going to transfuse his blood somewhere along the way. (Faking a transportation issue between race stages is one way to do it.) Multiple discussions are had between himself and his team about whether or not his doping will actually be a factor in the upcoming Tour de France. The frankness of such conversations might be best described as eye-opening.
We may all have some big picture idea of this guy and how his legend (rather, the lack thereof) is going to proceed him, but Alex Gibney managed to put himself in a position, both throughout the many stages of Lance’s penultimate Tour de France (2009) and throughout his day-to-day life across several critical years, a perspective that gives us little extra glimpses of a man we wished he could have been instead of what he became. Thanks to Gibney’s persistence in shadowing Lance, viewers officially have a more intimate window into the life of one of the world’s most efficient, professional and perverse deceivers currently walking around.
The word ‘perverse’ seems appropriate because of the many groups he has taken along for a ride (uh…pun intended?), the most disturbing of which undoubtedly being the organization he created to help cancer victims.
Debating whether he truly cared for other cancer patients sadly is academic when the overriding narrative is so heinous (though it’s a little difficult to think he didn’t, considering the terrible state he was in throughout his own extensive treatment). The man lied about his natural abilities on the bike and, natch, everything seems to come in second place to that fact. As a result, the foundation — formerly known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation — has been renamed to reflect the severity of his fall from grace. It’s now titled Live Strong, and Lance has lost all connections to it. Old news, yes. Still, there’s a lot of rare footage contained herein that allows the viewer to get closer to the rider than they might have otherwise been able to.
Perhaps the most crucial moment of all, both in the film and in Lance’s turbulent last ten years, revolves around one particularly embittered former teammate and friend, Floyd Landis, who rode with Lance on the USPS team. As Landis had also been involved in doping, he too faced punishment, though nothing to the extent his more notorious teammate would ultimately deal with. Landis’ 2006 Tour de France title was stripped and after several years of struggling to find another team to take him on after he admitted to continual drug use, his professional career more or less slipped away, in no small part due to the complicated relationship with Lance. His testimony is not only emotional, it’s difficult to comprehend. It is in these moments of the documentary we can get an idea of just what it was like living the professional cyclist’s life in the shadows of someone like Lance Armstrong.
One of the more poignant observations made here is that this is not a story about drug abuse, this is a story about power and the loss of control that fame can give someone. In some ways it is impressive to think about how he managed to hold things together for as long as he did. As an audience, the greatest reward for sitting through this depressing affair might be just getting to hear the words of defeat coming from the man’s mouth. Yes, it’s somewhat of a foregone conclusion that he would not get away with such a profoundly huge lie, but there is a sense of finality derived from this film that you might not get by sampling all the bad press he has on the internet and elsewhere.
Originally titled The Road Back, and intended to detail the miraculous recovery of this athlete and his improbable return to glory on the bike, Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie proves instead to be a thoroughly damning product, and one that shouldn’t be missed, if you can help it.
Recommendation: Not likely to move audiences in the sense that we might see something about the supposed seven-time Tour de France winner that we haven’t known about him. There is no positive takeaway, but this well-constructed story certainly adds color to an already dramatic event that effectively tarnished the sport of professional cycling in its entirety. I’d recommend it to those who hate his guts. I’d even recommend it to Landis.
Running Time: 122 mins.
Quoted: “I like to win. But more than anything, I can’t stand the idea of losing, because to me, that equals death.”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com