Don’t expect fresh bombshells from Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, a documentary that began its life as a chronicle of Lance Armstrong’s return to pro cycling in 2009, but abruptly morphed into a post-Oprah grilling of the disgraced seven-time Tour De France champ. In January, after being slapped with a lifetime ban from racing, Armstrong admitted to doping throughout his historic winning streak. It’s not as though he has an excuse; the logic amounts to: Everyone was cheating, and therefore everyone should. And Armstrong, the film argues, is not the sort of person who does anything halfway.
The major revelation, at least for those who don’t follow the sport, is that cyclers’ illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs was so ubiquitous as to seem unremarkable. Some combination of mutual guilt, Omertà, and fear of legal action was enough to shield this culture from the public eye. The Armstrong Lie could probably have delved further into the mechanics of the con, though descriptions of athletes reinfusing themselves with their own previously oxygenated blood are certainly graphic enough. In any case, the film offers a definite sting as Armstrong’s former teammates dish on who saw what and when. In some instances, as with Frankie Andreu (who testified against his onetime friend and later, in a possible attempt at humiliation, was given the opportunity to serve as Armstrong’s personal TV interviewer during the 2009 season), resentment lingers.
As in the director’s Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer—a confession documentary built around a comparatively contrite figure—Gibney suggests a conspiratorial angle without ever finding a smoking gun. He proposes that interested parties turned a blind eye to Armstrong’s cheating, because potential profits—reliant on the narrative that Armstrong had returned from cancer to become a hero—kept authorities from speaking out. (Armstrong claims there were “dozens, if not hundreds” of conversations in which he was tipped off that tests were “close.”) Smartly, Gibney doesn’t exempt himself from complicity in generating the Armstrong myth: He admits he signed on for the project as a fan, ready to film a comeback story, even though sports journalists (such as amply interviewed Armstrong bête noire David Walsh, co-author of L.A. Confidentiel) long felt the cyclist’s records were too good to be true.
Those who want to see Armstrong sweat may leave disappointed. Calm and seemingly well rehearsed in interviews, Armstrong shrugs off years of public statements without ever seeming truly remorseful. The mask slips a bit during Gibney’s pre-scandal 2009 Tour footage, when, facing the prospect that he won’t come in first place, Armstrong apologizes to the filmmaker for ruining the documentary: “Trust me, this will not be the same if I don’t [win].” That tenacious, media-savvy version of Armstrong is the most compelling figure in the film. Less can be said for the more recent material: There are few things more tedious than watching a confirmed liar spin his wheels.