Talented and prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has spent years looking at the ethically tainted side of human affairs.
A couple of years ago, he decided to do an uplifting sports story. Thing is, the subject he chose was Lance Armstrong. The champion cyclist had an irresistible story line. Survivor of testicular and abdominal cancer and brain surgery. Seven-time Tour de France winner. A dash of controversy surrounding allegations of drug use and the many medical tests apparently exonerating him. Having retired in 2005, he was mounting a 2009 comeback at the age of 38.
Before the film was finished, doping authorities finally had the goods on Armstrong. A 164-page report laid out, in detail and with the testimony of his U.S. Postal Service cycling teammates, how he made doping a virtual condition of service on the team. Facing a potentially ruinous lawsuit from sponsors, Armstrong made a public confession to Oprah Winfrey, the first stop on any public redemption circuit. In January, under her sharp questioning, shown here, he confessed that he won his titles shot full of growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone. If Gibney had set out to make a cheerleading biography of Michael Vick or Tiger Woods, it could not have gone worse.
But from the ashes of his intended project, Gibney has fashioned something valuable. Reconfiguring his footage and adding himself to the mix as narrator, he has created an unforgettable portrait of an egotist unshakably convinced of his own greatness. Armstrong, an outspoken atheist, repeatedly frames his long-shot cancer recovery as "a miracle." Ever burnishing the Lance legend, he always treated his critics like annoying gnats, or worse. In the film, former teammates describe him as an intimidating bully.
"The Armstrong Lie" lays out the details of the disgrace in Gibney's usual painstaking detail, but doesn't add much to the public record. In place of revelations, it offers us the chance to see Armstrong close up post-Oprah, still without contrition, still single-mindedly spinning the narrative to his advantage.
Gibney's offscreen voice asks pointed questions with investigative zeal. Armstrong evades or mouths unfelt apologies and extenuating circumstances, his eyes as dead as a great white shark's. Yes, he doped, but so did everyone else struggling up the Alps so what unfair advantage did he exploit? Winners do what it takes to win. And it is all about winning.