The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is currently running, and one of the docs screened is The Armstrong Lie. To be honest, I didn’t really want to see it but also couldn’t not see it. And I figured that in the interest of those following this blog, I should.
As you probably know, director Alex Gibney was asked to make a documentary about Armstrong’s return to cycling in 2009. After shooting what was likely going to be a feel-good story in 2009 and 2010, the doping rumors got stronger and stronger and Gibney halted production. After the USADA report and Oprah confession completely changed the narrative, Gibney took the old footage, added new interviews with Armstrong, the Andreus, Bill Strickland and others and turned the Armstrong Love-in into the Armstrong Lie.
I was expecting that seeing intimate interviews with Armstrong pre-confession and comparing them with post-confession statements could be interesting. Other than that I wasn’t sure what to expect. Unfortunately I have to say, I was very disappointed.
The movie basically tells the whole Armstrong story, from triathlete at age 16 through his early career, cancer, comeback and fall from grace. It jumps back and forth but in the end, everything is covered. This means that unless you’ve lived on the moon the past ten years, you are unlikely to learn much. If you’ve spent that decade not only on earth, but also with some level of interest in cycling, the contents becomes even less exciting.
There’s even space to explain the most rudimentary basics of cycling, such as the common platitudes of “doping is as old as cycling” and “domestiques are helpers to shield the leader from the wind”. Ironically, if you can refrain from plunging your head into the popcorn at these moments, they actually provide some of the most interesting footage.
During the doping-through-the-ages bit, footage of riders raiding a bar and making off with the beer and wine is shown. This footage has of course been available forever, but many will never have seen it (unlike, say, a poster of a smoking peloton).
The footage about domestiques shows footage from a bike-mounted camera while a domestique makes it to the front of the peloton during the Tour de France. It is quite hair-raising.
Other than that, the contents simply disappoints. If you’ve watched 60 minutes or similar programs on Lance before, you don’t need to see the deposition of the Andreus and Armstrong in the 2005 court case again. You don’t need to see Lance deny doping on the View, Larry King, or anywhere else.
What should have been the actual core of the documentary – the unprecedented access – fails to deliver. There are very few interviews with Armstrong, both pre- and post-confession. In short, it’s a different combination of stuff we already know. Even worse, whenever a veil is almost lifted, for example when Strickland basically reveals he discussed with Lance how he could best confess, there is no follow-up.
In the end, the only part that piqued my interest was when Lance talked about his cortisone positive from 1999. After he says that the UCI asked for a prescription, Gibney asked what Verbruggen exactly told him. Lance then answered that he didn’t talk to Verbruggen, that Johan Bruyneel did. This seems to be contradicting Lance’s most recent statements.
Take that for what it’s worth, what it unfortunately wasn’t worth was two hours of my time. So, is there no merit in this movie? I would say that for people who have very little knowledge of the story, this is a good overview. But for those who have followed the events unfold with some interest, it will be old hat.
It might be more fun to watch than the average Hollywood blockbuster simply because the topic interests you, but if you find it playing at a documentary festival and have other options, go see “Return to Homs”, “Ai Weiwei The Fake Case”, “Whatever, forever” or frankly anything else instead. You’ll be more likely to learn something.
P.S. The other original footage I saw was Lance with one of the Olsen twins (don’t ask me which). I had never seen that before (though I had heard about it) but I can’t honestly say my life has become richer after.