The Armstrong Lie
Alex Gibney's documentary may have begun as a positive and rather adoring film about Lance Armstrong, his career and his comeback to the Tour de France but it ends very differently. You may expect it to be a film of two distinct halves, one pre-Armstrong revelation and the other post, in fact it intermingles the viewpoints the director experienced to provide a very strong documentary, one that might actually have a surprising effect on you.
The final documentary focusses on the lie, what that means to Armstrong and his career and what his attempts to return mean for his career as well as the most important thing, what Armstrong's own thoughts are.
The big shame about The Armstrong Lie is that it didn't have or find the big reveal of Lance Armstrong, nor does it present some shocking new inside truths. However what it does have is a surprisingly balanced view of the events and a lot of information that the media headlines haven't even bothered with. What that does is give us information and facts, lets us hear from people we won't have heard from before, and looks around Armstrong's Lie to see the complete picture.
As a result we end up with a documentary that is just as powerful and insightful as one delivering the big reveal. In fact it works even better because we have the opportunity to see more than the media handled interviews and lazy, headline reporting.
The film isn't as good as some of Alex Gibney's other documentaries, Taxi to the Darkside (Filmstalker review) is perhaps the one I enjoyed the most and find is the benchmark for his other work, and although it does come close it doesn't meet it. I felt it lacked the cohesion and strength that his other work did but then he has a difficult topic with an incredibly difficult filming behind it - in effect his first film was dumped extremely late on because of the star himself. For that reason alone this becomes an excellent film, but there are other reasons I feel it deserves such praise.
The main reason above all else is that the film did something I thought wouldn't be possible, it managed to connect me with Armstrong and, to a degree, understand some of his motivations. Certainly not the allegations of bullying and aggressive tactics to keep people silent, but definitely around the use of various performance enhancements during his career.
I use the phrase performance enhancement because while there was the use of the drug EPO there was also a lot of use of non-drug related enhancement, mainly in the form of blood transfusions. I actually remember this being reported as a method used to avoid detection however it is actually where an athlete transplants their own blood back into their body during exercise to increase the amount of red blood cells. Hearing it explained here doesn't make it sound as bad as it was made out at the time.
However the big issue for me is the revelation of just how widespread it was. In an early sequence we see each of the podiums that Armstrong stood atop and highlighting the other riders now removed for performance enhancement. That reveal is where the thoughts began creeping in about what portion of the front field were doing the exact same thing that Armstrong was, that it was widespread within the sport, and from the words of others that it was almost required. This wasn't just Lance Armstrong, it wasn't just his team, it was far more widespread than that and if you wanted to compete with cheats, and this is where the understanding begins to come from.
We also start hearing hints that there was more knowledge and acceptance from the governing bodies and with each of these reveals the desire to witch hunt Armstrong alone and destroy him lessens greatly. You wonder where everyone else who was involved is and why they aren't being hounded as hard.
While there is much to change your view of the story of Armstrong, Gibney shows that he is a balanced filmmaker too. He presents the other side showing his own contradictions of the man, the darker, harder side of his personality. We hear stories that push us the other way and it becomes hard to know what the complete truth is or if it is as easy as pointing to one man as a cheat in a clean sport.
Ultimately I found myself to some degree understanding why he cheated the way he did and more than that, the reasons he perpetuated that lie. There is no question the man is driven to win and to achieve but then he's also driven to survive at any costs, even if that means by attacking others. Does that lessen the other things that he has achieved?
That is another interesting point which is presented during the film, some of his achievements are amazing both on and off the track, and there are moments when you hear of race stage achievements which just couldn't be down to performance enhancement alone. Did his lie outweigh everything else and everyone else's lies?
I would have liked to have heard more from the other teams and riders that raced around him. While we heard from a couple it could have taken away some of the greyness and helped me understand just how far reaching this lie went, for its clear it isn't just Armstrong's lie.
The documentary also presents his comeback well against the question of his cleanness competing in a sport that may not have cleaned up its act any further from when he was winning.
The structure of the film, as I previously said, doesn't quite flow as well as I had hoped but what it doesn't do is present the two different Gibney films, pre and post Armstrong reveal, as two halves. Instead it mixes the two together as the director looks back to his own journey following Armstrong with the hindsight of the shocking reveal and his own investigation into what came afterwards. It produces a story that is very accessible but also non-judgemental.
Gibney also gets some great behind the scenes and behind the headline stories as well as some powerful interviews from key people. Altogether it's a much more rounded and well-presented view of Lance Armstrong.
The Armstrong Lie is a very good documentary that may not deliver as powerfully as some of his other more scandalous stories but this does come close. It delivers a well balanced view from a man who is just like you and me, he wanted to believe in the character of Lance Armstrong and all that he had achieved. Yet as the story revealed itself to him during the filming, his mind was filled with doubts. Now, once the film was completed, he's uncertain and presents that feeling to us. There are no media type accusations, witch hunts or spin stories, we hear from the people involved, people at the heart of the lies, and we hear from the man himself.
What I loved most about the documentary is how it manages to affect you and makes you consider not only why Armstrong did what he did but also how far reaching the lie actually was, and indeed is. It leaves many unanswered questions, often leaving more grey than when the story began as black and white headlines.
It achieves the unthinkable, it manages to make you think about Armstrong and question your own preconceived views of the man - was he a lone liar bullying his team mates to performance enhance with him, did he really do this because it was the only way to compete at that level, and does all this destroy all that he has achieved in his career?
If you are at all interested in Lance Armstrong or cycling in general then this film is for you.