Lance Armstrong was once an American hero; despite a brutal battle with cancer he managed to win the Tour de France a total of seven times and in 2009 was going for his eighth victory. Documentarian Alex Gibney was filming Armstrong’s return to cycling in 2009 but abandoned his documentary amidst a further drugs scandal involving the champion cyclist. Armstrong, like many cyclists, has had his career marred by accusations of doping but had always denied taking any steroids and had the test results to prove it. When in 2013 Armstrong appeared on Oprah to confess to having used performance enhancing drugs for the length of his career Gibney picked up his camera again to complete the documentary, this time not to tell the story of a returning hero but of a fallen star.
I am no fan of cycling either as a pastime or a spectator sport and previously had only a passing knowledge of the Armstrong scandal. As I started to watch this documentary I remained baffled as to why this was such a big deal. Does it really matter who rides the fastest and wins the race? It is just cycling at the end of the day. What The Armstrong Lie taught me more than anything is just how much money rides on the success of a cyclist and in particular how many people in America relied on Armstrong’s story to give them strength when battling cancer. What’s more it is not as if Armstrong was the only cyclist to have been found guilty of doping, in fact doping seems to be the norm in the sport but Lance could only hide in such a prominent position for so long.
Lance Armstrong does not come across well in this documentary. As Gibney had access to the disgraced cyclist both before and after he was forced to admit to his rule breaking and had his Tour de France victories taken from him we get to see two different sides to Armstrong. Across numerous years we have footage of the man vehemently denying the claims made against him and throwing anyone who dares speak out, with what turned out to be the truth, under the bus. Clearly an accomplished liar Lance seems almost sinister as he never hesitates to blame anybody but himself and can never quite face the truth unless he has no other choice.
What made The Armstrong Lie was getting to see Gibney lose all objectivity on two separate occasions. This is very much a documentary with an opinion. Back in the 2009 footage Gibney himself confesses to have been completely swept up in the Armstrong fever as he bought the story of his struggles and willed him to win the tour without ever suspecting he was using drugs. When it came to finishing the documentary in 2013 Gibney is clearly a hurt and angry man who is setting out to expose someone who so blatantly lied to his face on camera.
I’m still not hugely interested in cycling and it seems even more ridiculous to place such importance on who wins the Tour de France when it seems like everyone competing is doped up. Hopefully films like this will help to drive drugs out of the sport. The Armstrong Lie proves to be a far more engrossing way to enjoy cycling than actually watching a race and is a fascinating portrait of a devilishly good liar and a world-class manipulator that let down an entire nation.
The Armstrong Lie has no UK release date yet.