MRR Review: "The Armstrong Lie"

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

MRR Review: "The Armstrong Lie"

Rating: R
Length: 122 minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2013
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Genre: Documentary

"The Armstrong Lie" is a 2013 documentary film by director Alex Gibney. The film focuses on legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong, chronicling his meteoric rise to fame and prestige in the international cycling world as well as his rapid descent into infamy in the wake of a steroid scandal. The film was screened at the Venice International Film Festival and the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

The premise of "The Armstrong Lie" is not about demonizing Lance Armstrong but rather telling his story through a candid and at times raw perspective. The former athlete and cancer survivor recounts how he lied numerous times about the use of steroids over the course of his seven Tour de France cycling competition wins. Those seven wins set world records, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the fallout from the scandal was so severe. Armstrong became the best known competitive cyclist, setting the standard for sportsmanship and performance in the sport. Other athletes who chose to go the natural and legal route were understandably outraged and felt betrayed when they realized that the standard-setter in their sport had been using unauthorized methods to boost his own performance.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is that it shows clearly that Lance Armstrong is less than penitent for his actions. The documentary covers Armstrong's infamous interview on Oprah Winfrey's talk show. In the interview, the former athlete seemed to believe that the fallout from his scandal was at least somewhat undeserved and that he did, at least in some form, earn his numerous world titles. "The Armstrong Lie" gives a truly haunting look into the mind of the former cyclist, painting him as the very flawed and human athlete that he is. While other films have been overly harsh in their characterization of the former cyclist, Gibney manages to walk the fine line between truth and harshness. He characterizes Armstrong's humanity, flaws and triumphs included. While other directors might give in to the temptation to debunk Armstrong's entire career, Gibney remains moderate, giving credit to his successes where it is due.

In addition to showing footage from some of Armstrong's most infamous appearances and interviews, Gibney himself conducts a series of probing interviews with the infamous cyclist. In one such interview, Armstrong admits that he fully expects the world to remember him for his seven championships rather than his drug use, in spite of the fact that those titles have been removed from his name and he has been banned from playing any professional sports for the rest of his life.

In the most iconic quote of the film and perhaps his career, Armstrong laments, "I didn't live a lot of lies, but I lived one big one." That theme certainly plays throughout the entire documentary as Gibney examines the cause and effect of Armstrong's lies, not only on his own career but on the droves of fans he inspired to enter the world of professional cycling. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and poignant aspect of the film is the way Gibney handles the subject of Armstrong's victory over the cancer that nearly claimed his life. Gibney himself originally set out to create a film that would honor his hero's legendary career in cycling, but when the scandal broke, he knew it was time to change course. Like so many fans, Gibney's disappointment combined with his ultimate resignation and lingering admiration for Armstrong shows through in every scene.

In the interest of fairness, Gibney chose to focus not only on Armstrong as an easy and famous target of the steroid scandal but on the theme of steroid usage in the cycling industry as a whole as well. Armstrong was far from the only athlete to use illegal performance-enhancing drugs, and "The Armstrong Lie" tells the tale of how that usage changed a sport forever. The film also highlights the role Armstrong's history as a cancer survivor and spokesperson played in the media's handling of the scandal.

When Armstrong returned to cycling after battling his illness, he inspired millions of cancer survivors, young and old. While many of those fans were let down by the former athlete's actions, Gibney provides a bittersweet sense of solace for them. As much as "The Armstrong Lie" chronicles the cyclist's shortcomings, it does not focus on them exclusively. In fact, the documentary film does a beautiful job of looking at the whole of Armstrong's career and extracting what positivity and encouragement it can. Gibney helps other fans affected by the scandal to realize, perhaps as he himself came to, that, just because heroes fail sometimes, it doesn't mean the inspiration taken from them was meaningless.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5