Back in 2009, Alex Gibney was called upon to chronicle Lance Armstrong’s comeback Tour de France, where the seven-time champion ended up placing third. Naturally, though, when Armstrong finally owned up to doping three years later, the as-yet-unfinished project changed into something much more critical of its subject, with Gibney wondering how he had been so easily duped by Armstrong, and whether he could see signs of his duplicity better now than he did then, when presumably he got as caught up in the drama of the moment as everyone else.
Gibney’s willingness to acknowledge his role, at least back then, in aiding and abetting Armstrong’s comeback campaign sets up an intriguing tension to the film on a formal level: In some ways, Gibney still produced the uplifting film he was originally commissioned to make, with long stretches of The Armstrong Lie’s second half devoted to detailing Armstrong’s progress in that 2009 Tour de France as if the subsequent scandal never happened. It did, of course, and for that reason, Gibney often purposefully cuts off the forward momentum of Armstrong’s Tour de France performance in order to go into lengthy asides that delve deeper into the ways the athlete doped and deceived his public: his covert alliance with doping expert Dr. Michele Ferrari, his repeated public threats and legal strong-arming to anyone who dared to speak out against him, the wider doping culture that encouraged him to take performance-enhancing drugs in the first place, and so on. For that reason, The Armstrong Lie occasionally plays like a film divided against itself, torn between Gibney’s desire to fulfill the original intent of his project and the frustrated acknowledgment that the original intent was essentially, well, a lie—just another piece of a self-glorifying public-relations spectacle cooked up by Armstrong himself.
The fact that Gibney puts himself into this film so directly, making his filmmaking process as much a part of the story of Armstrong’s scandalized downfall as the man himself, suggests that The Armstrong Lie will be in part an examination of his own role in perpetuating Armstrong’s grand fib. But Gibney, that tireless take-no-prisoners activist, isn’t quite willing to push into full-blown self-implication; whenever he comes close, he falls back on eyewitnesses and journalists testifying to Armstrong’s “winning at all costs” mindset. The result is a film that feels more personal than the usual Gibney documentary, but not always in the most flattering of ways.
Even as Gibney goes into valuably exhaustive detail as to Armstrong’s history and the grander forces that allowed him to carry his deceptions as far as he did, the film can’t entirely avoid the feeling of a less-productive score-settling hit piece, as if Gibney made The Armstrong Lie merely to stick it to the subject that screwed him big time. Maybe that’s why Gibney seems to go the heavy-handed extra mile in his voiceover narration to offer us his interpretation of the footage he shows, wanting to make sure the audience sees Armstrong in exactly the same unforgiving light he now perceives him. Gibney, however, seems unaware of the irony of the fact that, as much as Armstrong may still insist, evidence to the contrary, he wasn’t cheating in that 2009 race, the filmmaker, for all his righteous fury, himself comes off as similarly cagey about fully admitting how easily he was seduced into blindly feeding into Armstrong’s PR machine.