In 2009, Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney was hired to make a film about Lance Armstrong's comeback to cycling. The project was shelved when the doping scandal erupted, and re-opened after Armstrong's confession. 'The Armstrong Lie' picks up in 2013 after Armstrong was stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles, and presents a riveting insider's view of the unraveling of the greatest deception in sports history.
It seems, in light of the nature of the film I am about to review, that I should be upfront and honest with my readers and admit that, although Lance Armstrong is obviously a name I am familiar with, beyond knowing that he is a sportsman of some description and that he – allegedly like Hitler, only has one… well you know – I know next to nothing about him, his sporting career and the ultimate and incredibly public fall from grace that brought him crashing from public esteem.
Beginning with a vision of a documentary that would chart the amazing return to form of world famous cyclist Lance Armstrong following personal tragedies and early retirement film maker Alex Gibney already had unprecedented access to Armstrong himself when the drugs scandal broke in 2012. Faced with a decision about whether to continue and potentially glorify the man who was becoming one of the most hated sportsman in American history Gibney made, what I feel to be, the brave choice to stick with his project and has, rather than simply following the news coverage or painting Armstrong as either villain or saint, created an utterly gripping and thought provoking documentary that depicts several aspects of Armstrong’s character and raises numerous points about ambition, determination and personal morals.
Being largely unfamiliar with Armstrong I was not aware how much of a celebrity he was in his native America; not only a successful athlete but Armstrong is surprisingly charismatic and fairly easy on the eyes; however, it becomes quickly apparent that any conversation that probes even slightly into his use of performance enhancing drugs bring out a far nastier side of Armstrong.
Vindictive and power hungry Armstrong feels absolutely no remorse for his actions in fact he makes it quite clear that he feels cheated, resentful of the American public and the authorities who took his medals and accolades away from him. Conversely however, there is a rather awe-inspiring aspect to Armstrong, the way in which he overcame cancer and his subsequent charitable work, which includes raising more than $300 million for cancer charities, depict him as a socially conscious and conscientious man.
This complex and occasionally juxtaposing depiction of Armstrong makes Gibney’s documentary fascinating; the way in which Gibney handles this potentially inflammatory content is both delicate and strong: Gibney clearly saw the dichotomy inherent in Armstrong’s personality and manages perfectly to balance his selfishness and ill morals with images of his, perhaps less obvious, good deeds.
Gibney’s directorial hand is quite evident in this piece, it is clear that decisions were made regarding the order and nature of certain scenes; yet this does not feel like a biased piece, far from it in fact, it feels like a thorough and insightful exploration of this Tour de France champion and makes for intense and hugely interesting watching.