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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 3 September, 2015

Movie review: The Armstrong Lie

We assess the upcoming documentary about one of the most notorious athletes of recent years.

Lance Armstrong, pictured racing in 2010.
Lance Armstrong, pictured racing in 2010.

IT’S IRONIC THAT at least three movies either have been or are in the process of being made about Lance Armstrong, as many would argue that the disgraced American cyclist — with his constant and quite persuasive past denials that he was on performance-enhancing drugs — gave one of the most convincing performances of all time, from his seven consecutive Tour de France wins starting in 1999 right up until his eventual admittance to cheating last year.

The Armstrong Lie does little to repair the 42-year-old’s image, though the project had originally been conceived as a sort of tribute that was to coincide with his 2009 cycling comeback, while director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) admits to having been a “fan” of Armstrong prior to the revelations via a high-profile interview with Oprah.

And as a result of the alternative narrative that was established since its original 2008 inception, the film is oddly structured. It provides a fairly comprehensive account of everything you need to know about the Lance Armstrong scandal, replete with details on his background as a youngster growing up in Texas and interviews featuring some of those closest to the scandal, including Betsy Andreu, Jonathan Vaughters and David Walsh. On the other hand, it is hardly devoid of digressions. It inevitably devotes considerable screen time to the cyclist’s 2009 comeback, and includes footage of Armstrong apologising to Gibney for not winning and thus, failing to provide the triumphant ending that both were presumably hoping for — or for “f**king up” his film, as the beaten cyclist puts it.

In addition, Gibney’s subsequent initial reaction to the scandal is odd. He expresses disbelief that Armstrong would lie, but focuses on the fact that he lied “to my face,” rather than to the millions of cancer patients and cycling fans, et al. This does not portray the director in a good light, making him seem somewhat self-important and vain.

And Gibney’s intrusion on the story does not end there — somewhat unusually for a feature-length documentary, he provides a running narration of events, often commenting on the action, while managing to keep his distance from the subject and refraining from condemning him too strongly. Instead, he leaves the strong opinions to those who knew Armstrong best — including many of his teammates and acquaintances, most of whom give relatively insightful and damning depictions of his character, as does some of the rarely seen archival footage. An interview with a young, remarkably skinny Armstrong, for instance, includes the then-aspiring cyclist’s description of how he loves “beating people” — a simple, but telling explanation of the ultra-competitive feelings that would drive him to commit unprecedented levels of deception many years later.

YouTube credit: SonyPicturesClassics

Moreover, the documentary’s strength lies in its detail — it provides a meticulous and clear explanation of how EPO benefits cyclists, a few minutes synopsis of who Dr Michele Ferrari was and why he was so integral in facilitating the US cyclist’s years of cheating, and a number of vivid recollections outlining the astonishing depths to which Armstrong and others descended in order to protect their rapidly escalating lies.

Nevertheless, what some view as its strengths, others will regard as weaknesses. For the ardent cycling fan or Armstrong obsessive, there are few surprises. So while the documentary may serve as a concise and comprehensive look at a seminal event in sporting history in years to come, for those of us who spent most of 2012 and 2013 closely following this saga, the film will feel like a mere regurgitation of all the depressing revelations and analyses previously covered in such depth by the mainstream media.

Armstrong himself is particularly bland. The one post-Oprah interview featuring the Texan in the film actually took place just three hours after his famous confessional. And unsurprisingly, he reveals little that hasn’t been said before, merely offering vague truisms about how regretful and “humiliated” he now feels. Moreover, the film’s principle question — why he chose to come back in 2009 and subject himself to further intense scrutiny after he had already achieved all he could in the sport — is never really answered or even examined in a thorough manner, though it is hinted that he was determined to prove that he could win the race clean (Armstrong still denies using performance-enhancing drugs post-comeback).

That said, even hardcore followers of the sport will likely enjoy some elements of The Armstrong Lie. The footage of the 2009 Tour de France is beautifully shot and evocatively captured. The vibrant atmosphere it highlights gives you a sense of why the sport is so popular, in spite of all its disreputable representatives. And there are moments too that even the most jaded cycling fan will surely appreciate. While Armstrong invariably comes across as being as distant and self-serving as ever, there are rare hints of humanity in his character, such as footage showing the playful manner in which he interacts with his children or the anguished look as he’s interviewed following a disappointing result at the 2009 Tour de France.

For the most part though, these moments in which the veil appears to be lifted are all too rare and The Armstrong Lie tells us nothing many of us don’t already know about its hollow, shady protagonist.

Rating: 3/5

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