Wesley Emblidge ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff
“This is not a story about doping, this is a story about power,” narrates prolific documentarian Alex Gibney in his new film about Lance Armstrong.
In 2009, he set out to make a film about the comeback of the seven-time Tour de France winner who beat cancer and became a worldwide icon. He was taken aback years later when Armstrong admitted to the rumors about doping and other performance enhancing drugs. In 2009 Armstrong had lied to Gibney’s face, as he did to countless others throughout the year. So the film, appropriately titled The Armstrong Lie, instead chronicles the cyclist’s rise and fall, and attempts to gain a deeper understanding of why exactly Armstrong lied. Unfortunately that’s something Gibney never fully achieves, instead we see him focus more on the chronicle itself.
Gibney seems to have had unlimited access to the athlete in 2009, when many thought he was just doing a “puff piece” idolizing him. To be fair, Armstrong’s story is stunning with or without the involvement of drugs, which we’re reminded of throughout the film. Gibney buys into the story, and so did I, because it’s an incredible one. Armstrong himself thinks his story is amazing, and the main revelation Gibney discovers is how obsessed Armstrong is with crafting his own story. Winning the race seven times and beating what he calls “a death sentence” wasn’t enough for Armstrong, he wanted to make a comeback in 2009, one that would ultimately be his downfall.
The film jumps back and forth between summarizing the athlete’s career and relationships, and Gibney’s attempts to understand the man himself, the latter being where the film falls hardest. For the amount of access Gibney had in 2009, as well as the fact that he interviewed the athlete more recently, one would hope he’d ask a lot of the tough questions and try to help us understand Armstrong better. But truthfully, the clips shown of the famous interview Oprah did reveal more and are more essential to our understanding than anything Gibney got out of the man. Neither interviewer really gets to the core of understanding why he denied it for years on end and why he didn’t even think he was doing anything wrong (aside from a good number of deceitful answers).
Gibney also involves himself significantly in the documentary, which is for the most part a good thing. Being shown the process behind a documentary can help to ground it, and in a story like this where the film itself changed so much, it’s important that Gibney gives us this peek behind the curtain. It’s less essential, however, when he talks about his personal feelings or when he shows Armstrong personally apologizing to him.
For those looking for a serviceable recap of all the controversy The Armstrong Lie is a perfectly acceptable documentary, but those trying to understand what exactly Armstrong was thinking will be left unsatisfied.