The Armstrong Lie DVD review

Alex Gibney's look at the fall from grace of Lance Armstrong is a compelling film. argues Rob...

Many of the best documentaries in history have happened by accident, through filmmakers aiming to capture one story and being thrust headfirst into a completely different one. As was the case when Jules and Gedeon Naudet set out to document the lives of New York firemen on the eve of 9/11, the tone and subject matter of Alex Gibney’s account of Lance Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France in 2009 veered wildly during production, and has become a different, documentary as a result.

The film jumps straight to the point, opening with a frank interview with Armstrong in 2013, mere hours after his Oprah appearance during which he admitted to doping and cheating throughout his entire career. “I didn’t live a lot of lies”, explains the visibly dejected former hero, “but I lived one big one”.

It’s an accurate description, which Gibney then jumps back to the start of Armstrong’s cycling career, using plenty of footage from his original pro-Armstrong documentary, to investigate. Throughout the two hour feature the cycling icon’s fierce charisma and aggressive handling of media scrutiny create the image of a man who had spun a yarn so many times that even he had begun to believe it, who had inspired a generation and would do anything to keep winning, and to keep his reputation intact.

Even after being stripped of all titles and publically shamed, Armstrong remains an enigma. Watching him retell his life-story with new-found honesty is a rare treat to behold, with the contrast between his more solemn modern self and the enthusiastic younger version throwing up some big emotional moments. 

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The honesty of director Alex Gibney, who uses voiceover well to establish himself as a character, also creates some interesting paradoxes. Despite having good form covering scandals (having tackled Enron, WikiLeaks and U.S. military torture techniques throughout his career), Gibney openly admits to getting caught up in the hype and becoming blind to the truth when initially following Armstrong during his 2009 Tour de France comeback. 

The inclusion of this personal angle adds extra heart to the movie, with Gibney’s personal disappointment clearly informing the tone of the film, as well as echoing the public’s disenchantment with Armstrong.

Despite having to address facts, figures, whys and wherefores, Gibney’s documentary really excels at focusing in on the smaller elements of the scandal, including pausing to highlight a moment where Armstrong’s posse faked a mechanical failure on the team bus in order to stop and blood dope in front of a huge crowd of fans. 

In-depth interviews with former team-mates, doctors and rivals ensure that The Armstrong Lie feels hugely well informed and offers the whole truth on the matter, with friend-turned-truth-ouster Frankie Andreu standing out as a particularly engaging, and clearly hugely conflicted, subject.

The finished film itself may not be perfect, with a forgettable score and unavoidable repetitiveness teetering dangerously close to inducing boredom, but the central close-analysis of Armstrong’s career and his psyche, and how both affected the world around him, is vital viewing for anyone with even the vaguest interest in the sport.

The Armstrong Lie is out on DVD in the UK from June, 2 2014.

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4 out of 5