The Armstrong Lie is a documentary about Lance Armstrong. Unfortunately, Alex Gibney—the producer and/or director (I don’t know the difference and can’t be bothered to look it up) gave away the surprise revelation of the documentary right in the title: that Lance Armstrong lied. And probably continues to lie.
So the big question is, if you start making a documentary lionizing a guy and he turns out to have been lying to you (along with pretty much everyone else) and you try to salvage the documentary by flipping its thesis on its ear and adding a couple of interviews with the guy who was — and possibly is still –lying to you (along with, as I mentioned, pretty much everyone else) in the first place, do you have a compelling story to tell?
That is the question I’ll try to answer in this review.
But first—before we even begin talking about the documentary itself–there are some mysteries that need solving.
A Big Stack and a Big Rack
The Armstrong Lie comes out on DVD on February 11, but you can buy it and stream it on Amazon.com right now. Which is what I did.
And there were a couple of very strange things about the order page.
First of all, if you buy the DVD version, you apparently get a lot of DVDs:
Thirty discs? What could be on thirty discs? Every single foot of footage? The most-recent backup of Gibney’s hard drive? 29 additional copies of the movie for you to give to your friends? Promotional AOL membership discs from 1993?
Or — and it is my fervent hope that this is the case — perhaps discs 2-30 contain sixty hours of hilarious outtakes and bloopers. Because that would make for both a lot of entertaining viewing and a large enough coaster set for a pretty good-sized party.
Next comes the description of the video, which shows that someone wasn’t even trying when they were filling out this particular part of the form:
“Chronicles Armstrong’s attempt to win the 2009 Tour de France?” Really? That’s the description of this 2+hour movie you’re going with?
Spoiler alert: he doesn’t win, and that’s not really what this documentary is about.
Even weirder than that, though, is the cover of the DVD case. Sure, there’s the big image, where it looks like Lance is looking (in shock and dismay) at the text that shows that this video attended the Venice and Toronto film festivals.
But then there’s the shot of Lance on his bike:
I swear on my life that I did not Photoshop this. This is the actual shot on the actual DVD case image on Amazon. And it looks like Lance has a medium-sized gut and the largest man-boobs ever seen on a professional cyclist.
To wit, it looks like someone Photoshopped Armstrong’s head onto my body.
OK, now on with the review. Kind of.
When I told The Hammer we were going to watch this documentary so I could review it for my site, she—initially—seemed fine with the idea.
But then the documentary started, beginning with Armstrong talking, just moments after his Oprah interview. And The Hammer said, “I’m not that interested in watching him tell more lies. Is that all this is going to be?”
At which point I paused the movie and told her the premise of this documentary. That, basically, Gibney originally set out to make a documentary about Armstrong’s comeback in 2009. Then, when Armstrong’s falseness was revealed, Gibney instead combined his original footage with new interviews with Armstrong and people who had a part in his undoing: Betsy and Frankie Andreu, Coyle, Walsh, Hincapie, and others.
“Do we learn anything new in this documentary?” The Hammer asked.
I told her that I didn’t know for sure, but from what I had read, didn’t think so. What we’d do, I thought, was get a better sense of the people involved.
And so The Hammer sat down with me, watching, skeptically, while I watched and typed notes.
Then, after a while, she started playing Candy Crush on her phone, so she wouldn’t fall asleep.
Then, with about 45 minutes left in the documentary, she left to go do something else.
Because, when it comes down to it, this documentary doesn’t reveal much in the “whodunnit” sense (we already know all that), nor in the “why’d he do it?” sense (Tyler explained that part much, much better). The fact is, if there’s a single defining characteristic of Lance Armstrong, it’s self-discipline. He’s going to stay on-message; the only difference is that the message has changed, somewhat. We’re not going to get a Perry Mason moment from Lance.
And most everyone in the documentary is about the same. They have a point to drive home (Lance is a doper and a bully), and they’re going to drive that point home, come hell or high water. If you come looking for the pathos behind it—which is what I was looking for–you’ll need to look elsewhere.
The exception to this is Betsy Andreu: she comes across as both forceful and forthright. Her motivation feels real and complex: anger at betrayal, a desire to protect her husband, indignation at unfairness. And her time on the screen — more than anyone else’s — feels straightforward and unfiltered.
The backstory to this documentary is pretty interesting: Gibney started a documentary intended to showcase Armstrong’s return to racing — then resurrected it as a movie about Lance’s career in deception.
The problem with the movie is that Gibney tries to have the movie do too many things. He seems to have been too much in love with all the race footage he captured during the 2009 Tour de France, and recaps almost the entirety of the race. Very little of which has much — if anything — to do with his new subject matter (doping and deception). As a result, a documentary that should have been about eighty minutes long — tops — comes in at 124 minutes.
Gibney tries to tie the huge amount of 2009 TdF race footage to a question: was Armstrong racing clean — as he insists he was — during this tour?
Here’s the problem with this question: the documentary doesn’t really give me much of a reason to care about the answer. You’ve got a guy who’s doped for his entire career and — until recently — gotten away with it. Now he says he raced clean when he came back in 2009. Why believe him?
And more importantly, why care? Either he was doping and got beat by another doper (the presumption I’m going with), or he wasn’t doping and got beat by a doper, which happens all the time and is in no way remarkable. Either way, this documentary doesn’t give me a compelling reason to care.
Summing up, The Armstrong Lie suffers from a similar problem Armstrong correctly observed about his interview with Oprah: for people who know about Lance already, it’s too little insight. For those who don’t, it’s too much detail. And for everyone, it’s too long.
And in truth, If I didn’t have an ulterior motive — writing this review — I wouldn’t have finished The Armstrong Lie.
Though I reserve the right to revise this opinion after watching all 30 of the DVDs that should be arriving at my home soon.