The Armstrong Lie (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

The-Armstrong-Lie 75If there’s one problem with the film, it’s that Gibney doesn’t quite get Armstrong to open up as much as we would like.

The-Armstrong-Lie 500

My favorite kind of documentary is the kind where the filmmaker sets out to cover one thing, and then unexpectedly, for reasons beyond their control, end up making a movie about something completely different. Since, by definition, you can’t set out to make one of these films, they are exceedingly rare, and I always like to check them out.

Alex Gibney, one of the most prolific documentarians working today, set out to make a movie chronicling Lance Armstrong’s comeback, and ended up making a film about Armstrong’s fall from grace. The reveal of Armstrong’s doping history happened as the film was in post-production. Having spent years filming the sports star, Gibney felt betrayed, and told Armstrong that he owed him an explanation, and one that was on camera.

In some ways, Gibney really lucked out here. Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France in 2009 did not go as planned. He made a respectable showing, but had to struggle to even come out anywhere near the top. In fact, at one point there is actually footage of Armstrong apologizing to Gibney for ruining his documentary. Had that film been completed as intended, it would have told the story of a guy who came back determined to prove that he was still the best but ultimately failed. Rather than ending his career on top, Armstrong would have a film documenting a last, pathetic footnote. And Gibney would have a very anticlimactic ending. As it is, he is able to use a lot of the footage he originally shot to tell a completely different narrative.

The story now is not about a comeback, but about Armstrong trying to prove that he can still win without the help of drugs. The irony of Armstrong’s fall is that he would never have been caught had he not returned to the sport, even though he was committed to returning completely clean. It was an honorable goal, but the fact that he couldn’t do it really damages his legacy even more. People could always have held out and believed that he would have won all those races even without drugs, but most will see this film as definitive proof that he couldn’t.

If there’s one problem with the film, it’s that Gibney doesn’t quite get Armstrong to open up as much as we would like. He is truthful about the facts of the story, but we don’t get as much insight into his personal feelings about it. He remains emotionally guarded, and the result is not that different from other interviews we’ve seen (and I haven’t even seen that many). Lance Armstrong is a fascinating man with a fascinating story, and I was into the movie for its entire two-hour runtime, but the lack of deeper insight makes this a good film, rather than a great one. | Sean Lass

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