The Armstrong Lie – a review

November 24, 2013

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.

16 Responses to “The Armstrong Lie – a review”

  1. Samuel G Says:

    Hi Gerard, good to hear from you again. I have no intention of seeing this film, but your words ”To be honest, I didn’t really want to see it but also couldn’t not see it” sum up very well the whole Armstrong paradox. Ideally he would just dissappear never to be seen again, but somehow he has captured the world’s imagination to such a degree that I fear it will be a very long time indeed before he ceases to make the news.

    • You’re right. I have to say that I am a supporter of the documentary film festival here in Amsterdam so it was also made very easy for me to go see it. If it hadn’t been within walking distance I wouldn’t have bothered.

      That said, I’m probably a lot milder on Armstrong now than say 5 years ago. In the end, he cheated in sports and made a few people’s lives hell for a decade. That is absolutely disgusting, but seeing it amidst a few dozen other documentaries makes it clear it’s all relative compared to other stuff going on in this world.

      • Leo Says:

        “but seeing it amidst a few dozen other documentaries makes it clear it’s all relative compared to other stuff going on in this world” — I presume you meant “relatively insignificant”. In any event, took a film festival for you to realize this?

        • No it didn’t, since I have made similar comments before. But seeing the often heated discussions on doping, it seems many could use a good shot of reality, though a doc fest or otherwise.

    • So yes, go see “Return to Homs” instead.

  2. Hey Happy Says:

    this “review” is as presumptuous as it is stupid. stick to bike riding, you are a crap movie reviewer.

  3. Rp Says:

    Seems mundane, but glad you covered it. I think it’s always good having a knowledgable opinion.
    Although Armstrong represented what seems to be an aging culture in cycling there is still clean up – Hein, Johan – plus those getting ‘outed’ like Ryder.
    It feels as if there is progress toward a cleaner sport, but I’m still skeptical. What appears to be the major deterrent is, doping is bad for business.

  4. Apascot Ossy Says:

    Reminds me of the Clinton affair, which was more earth-shattering and I’m still mad at him; at Armstrong less so.

  5. Craig Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Gerrard. It’s confirmed what many assumed to be the case, but hopefully it will provide an enlightening summary for a lot of people unfamiliar with some of the details of the story.

    BTW, I mentioned it a while ago, but I’d really like to know how confident you were that the riders on CTT were clean. I’m not digging for sensationalist revelations, rather the perspective of a team owner in the unique sub-culture of this sport.


    • I know, I haven’t forgotten about it and it is on my list of future blogs. I’ve just been swamped, as you can see I haven’t written anything lately.


      • Craig Says:

        Very happy to hear you haven’t forgotten despite being so busy – you must have a lot on your plate, and it’s great that you make the time to write this blog. Thanks.

  6. Craig Says:

    Yikes, apologies for not spelling your name correctly.

  7. Vlad Says:

    I’ve followed professional racing since the late 1980s. I’m well versed in Lance lore — both good and bad. You can read Walsh’s books, The Wheelmen, Tyler’s book and get a complete picture of LA and doping at and around Postal. That said, I liked getting all the information in a single two-hour chunk.

  8. JS Says:

    I watched the press conference (streamed) prior to the Toronto Int’l Film Fest. It included, among others, Gibney, Vaughters, Betsy Andreu (I can’t remember who else). They talked a bit more around the ‘making-of’, which was interesting since I’ve followed the story sufficiently to be familiar with most of the content (like many who read here). If you can find that presser or another like it, online, you may be at least as interested.

  9. Jean Says:

    Awesoome blog you have here

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