Lance Armstrong always wanted to show us. A poor kid raised by a single mom in Plano, Texas, he was made to feel like trash at an early age, and he wanted to wipe the fat smile off everyone’s face. In Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie,” there’s a local-news video of Armstrong as a teenage cyclist in which you feel the intensity — the furious will to outrace us all — come off the kid in waves of Texas heat. From the start, one senses, anything but winning was failure.
Is that how frauds are born? Gibney’s documentary acknowledges that Armstrong was also a great athlete, is a great athlete. No one attempts the Tour de France — three weeks of cycling up to 150 miles a day, up and down Europe’s tallest peaks — let alone finishes it, let alone wins it seven times, without possessing outrageous stamina, banned substances or not. Was he the best racer? Or, in a sport as rotten as this one, was he just the best cheater?
That’s not to let him off the hook, and, as its title indicates, “The Armstrong Lie” doesn’t. What the film is primarily interested in is damage — not to Armstrong’s body but to his soul, to the onetime friends and fellow racers whose lives he did his best to ruin, and to the image of professional cycling as an endeavor worth any respect whatsoever.
It matters that Gibney was a believer until relatively late in the game. (It matters considerably less, but so was I.) The filmmaker initially signed on to a project called “The Road Back,” documenting Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France in 2009 after four years in retirement. It’s quite possible the cyclist wanted to prove to himself, if no one else, that he could dominate the race clean. (He finished third. In the 2010 Tour, his last before retiring for good, he finished 23d.). But rumors of blood doping and illegal substances were growing harder to ignore, and Gibney abandoned the project. After Armstrong was finally stripped of his titles in 2012 and confessed all to Oprah in January of this year, the director sat his subject down for a long overdue grilling.
“The Armstrong Lie,” then, is a hybrid: the filmmaker salvaging his 2009 footage and turning it into a meditation on deception. Because Gibney himself was deceived, the film feels more personal than his previous documentaries about Enron, Eliot Spitzer, Hunter S. Thompson, or Julian Assange. Gibney bought in to the Armstrong Lie along with the rest of us, because it was a Cinderella story — kid beats cancer, wins all — but mostly, he admits, because our obsession with winning usually gets the better of us.
The movie circles back to look at how the rumors of Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs surfaced and were beat back over the years with lawsuits and smear campaigns against the accusers. If anyone steals the movie from its flawed subject, it’s Betsy Andreu, wife of Armstrong’s onetime teammate Frankie Andreu, who crackles with charismatic indignation as she recalls how Team Lance brought the full weight of the organization down on her after she reported hearing him in 1996 admit using banned substances.
Then there’s Michele Ferrari, the trainer who’s either the devil of doping or, as he maintains here, a sweet, old Italian physician unfairly maligned. (He’s currently banned for life from sports.) With Armstrong, he allegedly oversaw the systematic injection of many on the US Postal cycling team in the early 2000s, including Tyler Hamilton, whose rueful admission on “60 Minutes” is excerpted here. The film’s saddest figure may be George Hincapie, Armstrong’s loyal lieutenant during the years of US Postal’s Tour dominance, and a man who followed the star where he felt he had to. “Nobody made me dope,” Hincapie admits. “I just knew that I had to dope to do the sport that I loved to do.”
Gibney doesn’t cover all the bases — it might be useful to hear from some of the Live
strong higher-ups, if only to get a sense of what a charity betrayed sounds like. But he has Armstrong himself, which is almost enough. His eyes alternately sincere and dead, the disgraced athlete admits to what he did but maintains he never felt like a cheater, confesses to have hurt others but never takes the full measure of the personal damage he wrought on people’s lives (which to some may be a bigger sin than taking blood oxygen boosters).
At one point in the movie, you get a sense of how profoundly compartmentalized Armstrong had become, in a 2009 scene where breakfast with his kids is interrupted once more by officials at the door wanting to test his urine. Gibney’s new interview footage mostly illustrates the walls that can get erected between saying you’ve done something wrong and actually taking responsibility for it. “The Armstrong Lie” is one for the time capsule, because it preserves for future generations a very particular modern response to scandal: confession without remorse.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.