The Armstrong Lie

I have raved before about director Alex Gibney’s work; to my mind he is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of our times. I first became aware of him from his brilliant 2008 documentary about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, and I have sought out most of his other films, in particular enjoying Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God, and Client 9, a film about disgraced New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. (Click here for some other reviews of his work on the blog).

In The Armstrong Lie Gibney turns his focus to the world of sport and Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist whose name is now synonymous with doping. The documentary opens with Armstrong’s interview with Oprah in January last year. Oprah asked him a series of direct questions about his drug use and after years of accusations and emphatic denials, Armstrong finally told the truth; he had been doping throughout his career, and he had used performance enhancing drugs each time he won the Tour de France.

This was a huge revelation. Armstrong had repeatedly denied drug use when questioned by reporters. Throughout his career he submitted urine samples and complied with any and all testing, and at no point was he ever charged. When seen in the light of what we now know, Armstrong’s denials are Oscar worthy, his indignation and innocence appearing completely sincere.

Armstrong was a demi-god in the world of American sport. He was an inspirational figure, a cancer survivor who overcame a death sentence to win the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. His charity Livestrong raised over $300 million for cancer charities and victims, and seventy million people wore the yellow plastic wristband in support of his work. And solidifying his celebrity image, he had a string of high profile girlfriends including Sheryl Crow and Kate Hudson. But Armstrong’s dark side was well hidden. He was a power-hungry control freak who hated to lose, and had no problem intimidating people or lying to get what he wanted. After he won his first Tour de France in 1999 his career became about holding onto that power at all costs.

Gibney had originally intended the film to focus on Armstrong’s return to professional cycling in 2009 after a four year retirement. However the film stalled as Armstrong was investigated for doping. After his Oprah interview, Armstrong sat down with Gibney to set the record straight. What becomes apparent is that the use of performance enhancing drugs in professional cycling was widespread.

Armstrong realised in 1994 that although he was clean all his competitors were doping and therefore his team was getting annihilated. He came to believe that in order to compete he had to dope; it was the competitive standard and the only way he could level the playing field and win. As one interviewee says, this is a case of moral relativism. Professional cycling became a contest of who had the best doctor and who had the most money, instead of who was actually the better sportsman.

The Armstrong Lie is similar to Senna in that one doesn’t need knowledge of the sport in order to appreciate it. I hadn’t truly understood what a brutal event the Tour de France is; unbelievable endurance, speed and strength, all required for almost a month. The competition pushes the body beyond its natural capabilities and one can see how doping could become attractive to a single-minded sportsman.

Once again Alex Gibney has created a brilliant documentary; comprehensive, absorbing, and thought provoking. The Armstrong Lie is available to watch on 4OD for the next 27 days.

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