The Armstrong Lie is the least convincing Alex Gibney documentary I have seen. This filmmaker intelligently tore apart banking greed (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Pentagon criminality (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Catholic paedophilia (Mea Maxima Culpa). He approaches Lance Armstrong with plastic cutlery and a reluctance to use even that. The viewer’s instant thought is: a filmmaker has to be a fan of the multiple cycling champion, or to have presented himself so, to get this much time with him. So is the initial matiness with Armstrong (“Gibney, we got to win this f**king Tour de France”) real or tactical? Was the director’s admiration part of the contract?
Historically, Gibney signed on to profile Armstrong in 2009, the comeback-from-cancer year. Then the scandals broke, so the director patched a new film from the old. He does a good CSI-style job on the doping facts – how much, when, what kind, what for? – and coaxes Armstrong to some low-strength words of repentance. “Embarrassing”; “humiliating”. (Never “shameful”.) But Gibney also shuffles too much guilt on to a convenient scapegoat, an Italian medic alleged to be the cycling circuit’s Dr Drugs. And he allows sport’s greatest hero-turned-villain to voice unchallenged those apologias which were never apologies. “I can’t stand the idea of losing because for me that equals death.” And Armstrong had to take drugs because “everyone else took them”.
The film’s most soul-twisting scene comes when a cyclist who did retire after a brave drug-refusal stand is seen humbling himself with other hacks by interviewing a mid-race Armstrong for TV. But then a messiah this powerful controls all, including the pathways to reach, question or probe him. “I was afraid I was starting to buy into the bullshit too,” Gibney says at one point. It is the most honest point in his documentary.