The Armstrong Lie
“I didn’t live a lot of lies, I just lived one big one – which is better, I suppose.” So admits 1999-2005 Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong in the clean and thorough, if overly long, The Armstrong Lie.
Back in 2009 director Alex Gibney was commissioned to document Armstrong’s comeback to professional cycling at the Tour de France. When the Texan Train failed to win, the documentary was ditched – that is, until Armstrong was banned for life for the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that the sport has ever seen. Suddenly Gibney was sitting on a goldmine.
What a shame, then, that The Armstrong Lie is so black and white. As a rational account of Armstrong’s doping timeline it is admirable but ultimately rather pantomime. One could be forgiven for thinking Mr Armstrong alone invented drugs purely to besmirch the erstwhile immaculate reputation of cycling.
In fact, as Gibney well knows, drugs and cycling have some history. Indeed, every cyclist who shared a Tour de France podium with Armstrong has been caught doping. So why is all the ire reserved for Armstrong? Because he had cancer and never lets anyone forget it? Because he colluded with senior figures at cycling’s governing body (the UCI) to avoid drug tests at inopportune moments? Because he bullied co-workers, operated an omertà (literally silence of the mob) in the peloton against tattle-tails and hired a motorbike rider to mule his drugs around Europe? Yes, yes and yes again.
At no point does Gibney really provide any new fodder for the debate. There isn’t even a debate – Armstrong is guilty and has confessed (albeit conceitedly via Oprah Winfrey). The Armstrong Lie, then, is most intriguing for providing a glimpse into Armstrong’s psyche. A fatherless son who screams “You’re not my dad” at his coach; a dethroned champion who believes that people will reinstate his stripped Tour de France victories in time; an ousted bully who doesn’t appreciate that nobody cares about the crime, they care about the cover-up.
The Armstrong Lie is a documentary about power rather than doping, and is wonderfully edited, meticulously researched and at times even funny. But it is blinkered and uneven. Like article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which ascribed sole responsibility for WW1 to Germany, in the eyes of Gibney it isn’t enough for Armstrong to say sorry, he has to feel guilty too.
The Armstrong Lie is released in selected cinemas on 31st January 2014.
Watch the trailer for The Armstrong Lie here: