The Armstrong Lie

Jack Jones

Originally conceived in 2009 as a documentary covering the then seven-time Tour de France-winning cyclist Lance Armstrong’s return at the age of 38, new allegations of doping in 2010 as well as the recent admission of guilt from Armstrong prompted documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney to re-examine his original footage, turning his camera on the truth many had claimed the athlete had been trying to conceal.

With most of Gibney’s documentaries (Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) the focus is stories about abuses of power. In this particular case, doping in sports is the springboard for the director to put this human phenomenon under his microscope. By returning to the original footage and re-examining every detail, Gibney is as much looking at his own involvement in Armstrong’s PR machine as he is the PR machine itself. Carefully chronicling how Armstrong and his camp manipulated the “narrative” – to borrow one of the disgraced cyclist’s favourite phrases – the director reveals how exactly one of the greatest frauds in sport was possible.

As ever, the great detail in which the director is prepared to go is astonishing. For further knowledge, National Geographic’s Cycling’s Greatest Fraud as well as the book ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ (author and instrumental Armstrong crusader David Walsh features in the doc.) are valuable resources. But Gibney goes one startling step further, cutting between his 2009 footage and the access he got with the man himself post-scandal. The results are both chilling and enraging.

Though you can find aspects on which to disagree with Gibney – for example on the issue over whether or what degree did Armstrong use the Livestrong charity to cover his lie and if he was just the best of a dirty bunch of riders – there's never any question whether he's tackled the broader moral questions that have arisen during the whole affair.

Gibney’s willingness to empathise and offer a fair assessment of his subjects results in recognising that the humans involved in these stories are not always monsters. Rather, they are humans that, because of their imperfect nature, have done monstrous things.

Directed with the now customary vitality we’ve come to expect from the director, The Armstrong Lie is yet another riveting documentary that makes for absolutely essential viewing. The only question is, with Julian Assange and Lance Armstrong already bagged this year alone, who will Gibney cast his eagle-eyed gaze on next?

Follow Jack on Twitter: @JackJonesFilm

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