TIFF 13: The Armstrong Lie (2013)

I remember the yellow bracelets. I remember the Livestrong Nike tee shirts. That’s my image of Lance Armstrong. I’m not a cycling enthusiast. I never watched any of Armstrong’s seven consecutive Tour de France victories—all of those titles now stripped. I’d been aware of the headlines, but I never read far into the content of the articles.

This is why I’m less concerned with The Armstrong Lie as a document on the state of a sport. That’s not to say that the film wasn’t informative about the culture of doping that thrived in cycling throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, and that still clings to the sport.

I’m more interested, however, in something director Alex Gibney mentioned in the Q&A after the premiere. He described the film as the anatomy of a lie. The Armstrong Lie is genuinely incisive, with all that word’s connotations of cutting, penetrating, and surgery.

As the film reveals, the lie was birthed during the course of a medical procedure. It appears that as he battled and overcame cancer, Armstrong realized that he would need the aid of performance enhancing drugs to win on the road. The film exposes the personal motivations (Armstrong’s characteristic tenacity, will to dominate, and desire to win in life no matter what) and the brazen machinations (secret blood transfusions in the team bus surrounded by adoring crowds; “Moto-Man,” who would keep the drugs on his motorbike at a distance until needed) behind maintaining such a magnificent deception. Even during Armstrong’s seemingly miraculous first win in 1999 after his recovery, the rumours of doping had already begun in cycling circles, and Armstrong himself admits he’s been on his heels every since. He also admits that he never lost sleep about doping; he justifies his actions by maintaining that it never gave him an advantage, because everyone was doing it. In his eyes, he still is the winner.

Gibney replays key footage from Armstrong’s confession with Oprah, but through Gibney’s selections, and with the augmentation of a more recent interview, we see that the confession and apology are yet another attempt to spin a narrative about himself. Armstrong will never reveal the whole truth. He has only admitted his wrongness, and not the full details of those wrongs. His confession becomes another event in his legend, a necessary step in self-justification, a new victory within himself. Beating cancer; the miraculous win of 1999; the 7 consecutive victories; the return of 2009; the repentance of 2013.

Perhaps the most penetrating aspect of Gibney’s film, though, is his own realization that back in 2009, when he began shaping a film around Armstrong’s return (which evolved into the current picture), he himself had become absorbed in the Armstrong myth. Gibney’s own self-narrative of desiring to believe followed by disillusionment parallels that of the public, but with the difference that Gibney allows for the complexity of the issue. Armstrong the inspirational hero is not simply Armstrong the liar. His efforts to help those battling cancer seem to be sincere. What’s more, as Gibney points out, Lance Armstrong is a cheater, in the sense that he deceived the public and his fans. But if he has deceived us, we were only too willing to believe the beautiful lie.

8 out of 10

The Armstrong Lie (USA, 2013)

Directed by Alex Gibney; written by Peter Elkind and Alex Gibney.

The Armstrong Lie plays during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations program.