It’s hard to imagine that any but the most schadenfreude-addicted followers of sports and sportsmanship would really need the two hours of close examination given to cyclist Lance Armstrong in the documentary “The Armstrong Lie,” in which he is shown before, during and after his years of doping as a multiple Tour de France winner (now disgraced former winner, with an asterisk). Wasn’t Armstrong’s two-part television mea culpa with Oprah Winfrey enough?
Apparently not for filmmaker Alex Gibney (“We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks”). Gibney started making a film about Armstrong in the months before the cyclist’s 2009 comeback, after “retiring” from the sport. An admitted fan, Gibney put the project aside after the drumbeat of revelations about Armstrong’s use of banned substances became too loud to ignore. Once Armstrong publicly admitted that he had regularly used banned performance-enhancing drugs, Gibney took up the project again, believing that his subject owed him — and, presumably, us — an explanation, as Gibney says by way of introduction to the meticulous and, to a certain degree, repetitive film.
Those who can’t get enough of this public soul-searching will thank Gibney. “The Armstrong Lie” is thorough, fair and thoughtful. It may not, however, close the book on the scandal.
Whyever not? For one thing, as the film strongly suggests, Armstrong seems not to have come entirely clean — even now — about a couple of disputed points. Despite the film’s singular title, of course, there was never just one lie. Throughout the film, Armstrong is heard denying that he doped, over and over and over again, in old clips. Now he can’t seem to stop telling people that he did.
On the question of whether Armstrong ever admitted, in an Indianapolis hospital in 1996, where he was recovering from cancer surgery, that he had used EPO and other banned substances, Armstrong remains adamant to this day that he did not. This, despite two witnesses (former teammate Frankie Andreu and his then-fiancee, Betsy) who insist that he did. Armstrong also continues to maintain that he raced clean in the 2009 Tour, where he finished third, despite evidence presented by the film that reveals unusual, if inconclusive, blood oxygen readings.
There’s a palpable sense of sadness, more than outrage or betrayal, to the film.
That’s not because it’s so hard to understand why Armstrong did what he did. Gibney makes a compelling case for the almost universal prevalence of doping at the highest level of professional cycling. Maybe it’s time to forgive, he seems to be saying.
Armstrong’s arrogance, if that’s what it is, is hard to take, though. It’s there in archival footage from news conferences where he’s seen bullying reporters who were simply speaking the truth, or seeking it. But it comes across even today, when Armstrong splits hairs about the definition of cheating, saying that, if it is defined as gaining unfair advantage over competitors, he wasn’t a cheater.
If everybody’s cheating, in other words, you’re just playing by the (unspoken) rules.
That’s the big Armstrong lie. And it’s likely to leave viewers who see this rationalization creeping into every other aspect of society feeling more than a little heartsick.
R. At AMC Loews Shirlington 7 and Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity and a flash of bare buttocks. 123 minutes.