Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Alex Gibney.
When Gibney, a prolific documentary filmmaker (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Catching Hell), decided to follow Lance Armstrong’s quest for his eighth Tour De France title four years ago, there was already a hidden asterisk over Armstrong’s achievements. Allegations of doping had trailed Armstrong since his first Tour victory in 1999, and had only intensified over the years, as other winners, including former U.S. Postal teammate Floyd Landis, had forfeited their titles after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and Armstrong’s doctor, Michele Ferrari, was convinced for sporting fraud for providing PEDs to riders. (Ferrari was later acquitted due to lack of evidence, then later indicted in 2012 by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and banned from the sport for life.) Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond had been beating the drum against Armstrong since 2001, and Armstrong’s repeated denials had done nothing to quell the scrutiny.
What was missing was one incriminating test that would provide the necessary evidence. There was a sense, after Armstrong’s 2005 retirement, that he had gotten away with it, like the world’s craftiest jewel thief, and that his 2009 comeback signaled the audacity and ego of a man returning to the scene of a crime. Gibney is a tough journalist, having taken on the powerful likes of Julian Assange (We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks) and the Bush administration (Taxi To The Dark Side), and he doesn’t seem blind to the likelihood of Armstrong being a cheat. He seems as surprised as anyone that the cyclist would attempt a comeback, given all the renewed controversy guaranteed to swell up around him. Yet the original title of his new documentary, The Armstrong Lie, was The Road Back, and LeMond, who didn’t participate in the film, tagged Gibney as Armstrong’s house documentarian, somebody who would ultimately serve to burnish his legend more than question it.
The Armstrong Lie opens a few hours after Armstrong, having finally been caught doping on the 2009 Tour, wrapped up an exclusive session with Oprah Winfrey as the first stop on the apology circuit. Gibney reveals, via voiceover narration, that he felt Armstrong owed him an explanation for lying to his face about not using PEDs on this Tour or any others. This premise (and the new title) gives The Armstrong Lie its narrative hook: How dare you, Lance Armstrong, lie to me, Alex Gibney—and, by extension, the innumerable fans and sponsors and “Livestrong” charity contributors? But it seems impossible that Gibney, who has so often played an adversarial role, speaking truth to power, would ever be seduced by Armstrong’s phony story, no matter how seductive it remained as a tale of will, endurance, and triumph over adversity. Gibney wants to make a point about how so many people were eager to embrace that story, but counting himself among the duped seems fishy. It’s his own false narrative, useful for framing a feature-length documentary.
Still, the documentary does serve as a solid primer on Armstrong’s history, including his legendary Tour comeback after beating testicular cancer, and a thoughtful meditation on the sport as a whole, and how rampant doping has altered people’s perspective on what winning really means. Though Gibney’s access to Armstrong is mediated—the cyclist is exceptionally disciplined in controlling his image—The Armstrong Lie gets closer to the agony and the ecstasy of his 2009 comeback than anyone else documenting at the time. Armstrong was making a show of running the race “clean,” and based on his lackluster results in the early stages of the Tour, with his Astana Pro teammate and rival Alberto Contador dominating the field, his performance didn’t seem artificially enhanced. (Contador won the event in 2009 and 2010, then had his 2010 title stripped after a positive doping test.) But with his back against the wall, Armstrong turned in an improbably great performance in a mountain stretch that had always given him trouble, and eventually won a spot on the podium for third place.
This being Armstrong, “improbable” should raise some red flags, but Gibney admits to getting caught up in all the excitement. The first-person elements of The Armstrong Lie allow Gibney to play the role of audience surrogate, the average guy-type who wants to believe, but he’s never convincing, because he can’t fake the babe-in-the-woods routine of someone like Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam). He’s always been more journalist than performance artist, so the parts of the film that are most effective take him out of the picture altogether. There are mysteries and ambiguities aplenty about Armstrong and the current state of professional cycling, but Gibney has trouble accessing them without getting in his own way.