Lance Armstrong suggests that one huge lie is more acceptable than dozens of little ones.
Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney is best known for films built on the assumption that truth can be separated from spin (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks). For his latest project, The Armstrong Lie, he turns to Tour de France medalist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his titles after admitting to doping.
No matter how finely tuned your inner bullshit detector may seem, sometimes it won't sound an alarm. And when you fall for a lie, you are likely to spread false information. "He lied to my face" is the frequent refrain of the journalists who have interviewed Armstrong over the years. They couldn't see past the charisma of the star bicyclist and the too-good-to-be-true fantasy they wanted to believe. Then Armstrong pulled the rug out from under them, confessing to years of doping in 2013.
Armstrong started to come clean once he was stripped of his seven Tour titles in 2012. By this time, Gibney had finished one Armstrong film, which was shelved when international doping charges were filed. In 2009, the cyclist had staged a Tour comeback, and Gibney and producer Frank Marshall went along for the ride, crafting what they hoped would be an inspirational film about Armstrong's indomitable will and charitable deeds. After his fall from grace, Gibney decided to turn the shelved film into a cautionary tale.
Considering that Gibney had unfettered access to Armstrong during the 2009 Tour and a face-to-face meeting with him shortly after his confession to Oprah, The Armstrong Lie comes across as more of a good save than a muckraking piece of journalism. He, too, was duped for quite a while. The Armstrong Lie goes into great detail about the athlete's many untruths and coverups, as well as his decimation of former teammates who dared contradict the false information. Few of these details will be new to longtime followers of the scandal. Gibney talks to all the usual suspects, but only Armstrong's Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari, comes across as a true revelation.
The film's tone is often outraged and sputtering, like the title of Al Franken's book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. In contrast, there's something almost Shakespearean about the way Gibney fashions his subject into a flawed hero undone by his colossal hubris. Armstrong declares that he has only told one big lie, not lots of little ones, as if the former is more acceptable than the latter. This leaves the audience to ponder what to make of a disgraced champion who remains a great athlete and an inspiration to many.