It’s easy to imagine that some will be drawn to The Armstrong Lie merely for schadenfreude. A documentary that chronicles the fall of champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose empire and personal reputation collapsed once he finally acknowledged his use of performance-enhancing drugs, The Armstrong Lie could have been a simple takedown of a man who for years claimed the moral high ground over his critics. At long last, his self-righteousness has been laid low.
But vindication isn’t the strongest emotion pulsing through The Armstrong Lie—more like grim fascination. Filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) had initially conceived the documentary in 2008 as a portrait of Armstrong as he attempted a cycling comeback. After winning the Tour de France seven times in a row—all of these victories occurring after he had beaten cancer—Armstrong retired in 2005 as America’s most famous cyclist, despite the accusations of doping that hounded him. The 2008 return, which would culminate in the following year’s appearance in the Tour, was meant to prove his critics wrong and demonstrate that he had been competing clean this entire time.
But sometimes a documentary filmmaker’s initial plan gets shoved aside when real life intervenes, complicating the story he thought he was going to tell. It’s best not to reveal what happened during the 2009 Tour for readers not up on their cycling history, but those dramatic events pale in comparison to the controversy that personally enveloped Armstrong soon after. Admitting to doping, stripped of his titles, banned from cycling, appearing in an awkward Oprah Winfrey mea-culpa interview, Armstrong was by 2013 a pariah: He even had to step down from his cancer charity, Livestrong, because of the negative publicity he carried around with him like a toxic cloud.
With those facts in mind, The Armstrong Lie doesn’t gloat, though—it’s too shocked and disappointed for that. This tone derives from Gibney, who narrates the film and explains that he was an Armstrong fan: He wanted the guy to triumph at the 2009 Tour. But it’s also clear that he hasn’t been scandalized by Armstrong’s admission of his long-speculated PED use. What we get instead in The Armstrong Lie is a sober attempt to discern why an athlete thought he could deceive so many people for so long—and why so many people believed him.
Armstrong appears on camera, not just during his training for and participation in the 2009 Tour, but also in early 2013 after he admitted to PED use. It’s remarkable how little difference we see in the man. In 2009, he’s driven and a bit edgy, charismatic but also somewhat distant—it’s understandable since he’s in the midst of his grueling physical and mental work regimen. But he’s essentially the same in 2013—freed of his lie, he nevertheless remains combative. Everything seems like a war to Armstrong. Everyone is an opponent he has to defeat.
The Armstrong Lie suggests he’s been that way most of his life. We see a little of his childhood: He was the product of divorce, someone who enjoyed beating other people in whatever sport interested him. Diagnosed with cancer early in his cycling career, Armstrong wasn’t given great odds to survive. But he did and, as he explains, it became an unexpected motivator for his future cheating: PEDs were just another regimen to follow, his critics another negative obstacle he had to overcome.
As Gibney illustrates through talking-head interviews with former teammates, trainers and cycling journalists, Armstrong was arresting not despite his monstrous ego and competitiveness but because of those factors. Even at the height of his popularity, when he was hosting Saturday Night Live in 2005 and everyone wore yellow Livestrong bracelets, Armstrong was vicious to those close to him, cutting off people who weren’t loyal. The Armstrong Lie paints him as a rather ruthless individual, willing to go after anyone who claimed he was doping. There are shades of Macbeth to Armstrong’s journey: Once he had the throne, he had to insulate himself from all possible enemies. It’s not a perfect analogy, however, since there was no Lady Macbeth pulling the strings. Armstrong’s rise and fall were orchestrated by him alone.
The Armstrong Lie recognizes that Armstrong’s lies were inspired in part because of a cycling community where many of the top athletes were cheating. Gibney doesn’t forgive Armstrong’s crimes for that reason, but he places them in the proper perspective. Additionally, the documentary examines why Armstrong’s elaborate cover-up was swallowed whole by the public, citing his inspirational beating-cancer story and his multiple Tour triumphs. It’s worth pointing out that Armstrong never failed a drug test during his career, but as we learn in the film, even that wasn’t true, which speaks to the forces around Armstrong (including the International Cycling Union, cycling’s governing body) that wanted to perpetuate the myth of his untainted excellence.
Though Gibney doesn’t have anything particularly startling to say about the allure of sports celebrities that hasn’t been expressed already in many ESPN 30 for 30 episodes, The Armstrong Lie does home in on Armstrong’s coldblooded commitment to his fabrications, letting us hear from the people whose lives he tarnished because they told the truth. It’s here that Gibney works best, moving away from general societal observations to the particulars of Armstrong’s maleficence, putting a face on bottomless competitiveness.
Those going to The Armstrong Lie to savor the moment of Armstrong’s comeuppance may be disappointed: Even when Armstrong tries to be contrite near the end of the film, he seems to be holding back. It’s not remorse we see so much in his eyes as it is a begrudging acceptance that he’s been found out. Writing professors will tell their students that the best villains are the ones who think that they’re actually the hero. It helps explain why Lance Armstrong proves to be a formidable nemesis—and why, even after his fall from grace, he’s still so damn compelling.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
Starring: Lance Armstrong, Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu, Michele Ferrari
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2013