‘The Armstrong Lie’ offers fair portrait of fallen hero

It’s a sad day in the world of sports when Lance Armstrong’s story is no longer an uncommon one.


The Armstrong Lie
Rating: R
Running time: 122 min.
Stars: Lance Armstrong

After a decade of winning Tour de France titles, Armstrong was cycling’s Michael Jordan, an internationally renowned phenomenon who captured the hearts of just about everyone with his uplifting story.

At the age of 25, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After just one year of rigorous chemotherapy, Armstrong was declared cancer-free in 1997.

His story didn’t end there, though.

From 1999 to 2005, Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France titles, opened the Armstrong Foundation (which raised more than $500 million for cancer patients) and brought the sport of cycling into the spotlight.

Most importantly, Armstrong – despite his critics – had fervently and repeatedly claimed he had never taken performance enhancement drugs. Armstrong had transcended the reality in which you and I inhabit.

It seemed almost too good to be true. And sure enough, as documented in The Armstrong Lie, it was too good to be true.

Earlier this year on the Oprah Winfrey program, Armstrong admitted to doping.

His reasons? All his colleagues were doing it, so he had no choice if he wanted to remain competitive.

Unfortunately what made Armstrong such an alluring figure was that he wasn’t like his cheating colleagues. He bested every critic who passionately declared he doped by winning, and winning, and then winning some more — all while never getting caught.

Inside every avid sports fan was a glimmer of hope that Armstrong really was being forthright and honest with us. The Armstrong Lie, directed by sports enthusiast Alex Gibney, captures the titular athlete before and after his confession.

The film puts Armstrong’s story in context without devolving into a hagiography. We see his upbringing in Plano, Texas, his roots with the Motorola team and his drive to succeed. From an early age, Armstrong was imbued with the killer instincts and competitive drive only the greatest athletes have.

Gibney also succeeds in being fairly nonpartisan, neither indicting nor exonerating Armstrong for his offenses — it’s up to viewers to make their own verdict.

Gibney merely presents the story factually, interviewing a compendium of journalists, former cyclists and personal friends of Armstrong. Unfortunately, like the film itself, the conversations conducted by Gibney range from galvanizing to straight up boring.

None of that really matters though. No amount of context or rational will ever excuse Armstrong for what he did.

Which brings us to the most interesting element of The Armstrong Lie: the lie itself.

Watching Armstrong, interview after interview, deny he cheated makes for an fascinating psychological case study. How does one deceive people for longer than a decade and not crumble into a million pieces?

After awhile it seemed that Armstrong bought into the nonsense he was peddling. And for a while, so did we.

But eventually the truth comes out, so I suppose at least we have The Armstrong Lie for that.

However, like Gibney’s 30 for 30’s Catching Hell documentary on Steve Bartman, The Armstrong Lie is terribly overlong. The New York City born and raised filmmaker has a bad habit of asking the same questions over and over again, until they cease to be interesting.

That said, Armstrong’s story is replete with enough tragedy, heartbreak and duplicity that just about any viewer — sports fan or otherwise — will get wrapped up in The Armstrong Lie.

The film is playing at the following venues: 

Embarcadero in San Francisco

Shattuck in Berkeley

CineArts @ Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto

Camera 12 in San Jose

Century 16 in Pleasant Hill

Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael