POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 13, 2013
In "The Armstrong Lie," Alex Gibney's absorbing but overlong documentary portrait of Lance Armstrong, begun after he won the Tour de France seven consecutive times (1999-2005), Armstrong exhibits an unwavering poise and an almost robotic self-possession and air of superiority, with barely discernible blips of defiance and irritation. In the face he presents to the camera, he is still a winner, despite having been stripped of his titles for doping.
The clench of his jaw, his inscrutable gaze and the steady tone of voice suggest a star ensconced within the bubble of his celebrity. Even his admissions about the performance-enhancing drugs that helped enable his victories sound like the pro forma gestures of an athlete determined never to lose his cool in front of the camera.
|'THE ARMSTRONG LIE'
Opens today at Kahala 8
The film was started in 2008, the year before Armstrong's return to competitive cycling after a three-year retirement, and was all but completed a few years later. Filming resumed hours after his January 2013 television interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he admitted doping. In the footage Gibney initially shot, Armstrong lied about taking drugs. That's one reason "The Armstrong Lie" feels like two movies — a before and after — roughly stitched together.
One question asked by Gibney, who narrates the film, is why an athlete whose reputation seemed secure after his retirement, returned to competition.
The first half of the film looks back on Armstrong's youth, when he was a ferociously competitive, self-described bully. His stated belief that "losing equals death" was probably reinforced by his near-miraculous recovery from testicular cancer through treatment that included brain surgery in late 1996. The following year, he founded what became the Livestrong Foundation for cancer research and the support of cancer survivors.
The second half focuses on Armstrong's return to competition without the benefits of the blood booster EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone or blood transfusions. In that competition, he placed third. The film goes into clinical detail about how such drugs and procedures enhance performance.
Instead of bombshell revelations, of which there are none, "The Armstrong Lie" offers a thorough history of Armstrong's cycling career and the elaborate measures he took to cover his tracks. Interviews with former colleagues like Frankie Andreu and George Hincapie portray Armstrong as a scary, vindictive control freak who pressured fellow riders to take drugs and enforced a code of omerta. Doping was so widespread and its benefits so pronounced that serious competitors had little choice but to go with the program.
"The Armstrong Lie" is also a reminder that celebrity and hero worship, once attained, are almost irresistibly addictive. Armstrong, for all his gifts and hard work, emerges as a hollow man, corrupted by glory, protecting what remains of his reputation. Even in disgrace, he is determined to "control the story."
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times