Before Lance Armstrong shuffles off the world stage to do whatever it is he’ll do with the rest of his life, a little sorting-out is called for. Movies will play a role in that; a dramatic biopic is being planned, and a documentary treatment arrives this week.
“The Armstrong Lie” is the doc, which comes courtesy of Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”).
Gibney began the project years ago, while filming Armstrong during the seven-time Tour de France champ’s comeback to the race in 2009. The comeback fell short, but Gibney would find good use for the footage when Armstrong finally went before the world (well, before Oprah) earlier this year and confessed to having used banned substances during his cycling career.
As Gibney’s film suggests, it’s hard to know what’s worse: that Armstrong cheated, or that he lied so vehemently over the course of so many years. In making his denials, he trashed other people who were telling the truth about seeing him use performance-enhancing substances. Those folks, now vindicated, are heard from in new interviews in the film.
Armstrong himself is also newly interviewed. That in itself is interesting — despite his past behavior, he’s willing to sit for Gibney’s camera and (squirming just a little) fess up to the misdeeds. Or most of them, anyway; he’s still cagey when it comes to talking about whether or not he was clean during the ‘09 comeback.
What emerges is a portrait of an extremely strange man. Armstrong heroically overcame serious testicular cancer in the mid-1990s, and founded a fundraising organization that very visibly raised lots of money for cancer research. And the guy could not stop cheating.
The weird thing is, many of the bicycling insiders interviewed assert that most competitors were probably doping during Armstrong’s victories. Which makes you wonder that if everybody had been clean, Armstrong might still have had an amazing run of championships — he had to have been an extraordinary athlete to best a bunch of fellow cheaters.
“The Armstrong Lie” doesn’t answer the mysteries about Armstrong’s life, but it lays out some facts and provides a platform for the people who called foul all those years. Plus, it’s a great exercise in psychology: In vintage footage, we watch a man we now know to be lying, and in new footage, we see him looking just as convincing as he was back then. Is he still lying? Who can tell?
“The Armstrong Lie” (3 stars)
A portrait of Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion (since stripped of his titles) who finally admitted his drugging and doping. The movie, which includes new interviews with Armstrong, asks an intriguing question: Which was worse, the cheating or the vehement lying that went along with Armstrong’s denials all those years?
Rated: R for language.