The first red flag signaling the bumpy ride ahead for viewers of The Armstrong Lie — a two-hours-plus documentary about disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong — occurs two minutes into the film. In his awkward opening narration, director Alex Gibney explains that after intending to make a documentary about Armstrong's comeback from retirement in 2009 he "had to put the film aside" when Armstrong's "doping scandal erupted." Coming after years of public accusations and mounting evidence against Armstrong, that eruption might have been welcomed as serendipity, an instance of being in the right place with a camera as dramatic events unfolded. But Gibney had all but completed a film portrait of Armstrong as a true American hero. Gibney shot a lot more footage and reimagined his film, but the result is a troubling and schizophrenic work that doesn't really match the story it's required to tell.
Gibney should have known better. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2006 for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and won the award two years later with Taxi to the Dark Side. Gibney has built a reputation as an important filmmaker with a gift for handling complex subject matter. But he allowed his admiration for Armstrong to cloud his judgment. That's not hard to understand: On the surface, Armstrong's story seems one of singular courage and dedication. Early in his career, Armstrong beat testicular cancer that had spread all the way to his brain and went on to win the grueling Tour de France bicycle race an unprecedented seven times. He founded what came to be known as the Live-strong Foundation, which has raised $500 million to "inspire and empower" cancer survivors. Under pressure mainly through damning testimony delivered by former teammates, Armstrong confessed his well-hidden and careerlong use of performance-enhancing drugs to Oprah Winfrey in a January 2013 interview.
As seen in The Armstrong Lie, the cyclist's greatest skill has been using his personal charisma and the power that came with his success to convince — or bully, as needed — teammates, race officials and journalists to support a story that was obviously too good to be true. It's intermittently fascinating to see Armstrong's personal pathology put on vivid display. He remained a uniquely self-righteous liar happy to destroy those who crossed him — right up until the moment his house of cards collapsed. The film also features amazing footage from deep inside the world's greatest cycle races gathered with cameras attached to the bikes of Armstrong's teammates. But this technique creates one of the film's many unanswered questions: Why would fellow cyclists who've trained their entire lives for these races and who routinely shave their legs for the tiniest reduction in wind resistance agree to saddle their bikes with bulky HD cameras? Abuse of Power might have been the most fitting title for Gibney's film.
The Armstrong Lie seems a missed opportunity because it refuses to offer a meaningful perspective or analysis of the most flagrant cheating scandal in sports history. Armstrong's story surely says a lot about American culture and our collective worship of celebrity, athletic success and money (Armstrong earned $125 million over the course of his cycling career). Instead, Gibney allows Armstrong the last word, and he suggests vindication may be his when future generations view his achievements in the context of widespread doping in his sport. Don't believe the hype.