Judge Gordon Sullivan once entered the Tour de Farce.
I didn't live a lot of lies. But I lived one big one.
It takes a certain steely determination to race, especially when there are hills and curves involved. Riders (or drivers) have to keep the wheels on the road, responsive to the changes in terrain without overcompensating and shooting off into space. The determination that Lance Armstrong brought to his numerous Tour de France wins must have carried over into the game of chicken he played with the media for over a decade. Numerous reporters, and even former teammates, would accuse Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs, and he never once wavered in his denial, head down and determined. Until, of course, he wasn't. His lies caught up with him, and Armstrong revealed his history of drug use to Oprah Winfrey. Things got crazy. After that decade-plus of denial, there was a lot of drama to unfold, and documentary master Alex Gibney was there to help sort through the pieces of another scandal. Though the film is a bit long, The Armstrong Lie is also a well-crafted documentary that captures one of 2013's most interesting subjects.
Facts of the Case
In 2009, Lance Armstrong entered the Tour de France after an absence of several years. He hoped to show that he could still be competitive, and "naturally" at that. He apparently silenced his critics by coming in third, despite being in his late thirties. Filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) was on hand to document things. He couldn't, however, get the footage to work (perhaps because Armstrong's third-place finish wasn't dramatic enough). He could get the footage to work, that is, until 2013 and Armstrong's dramatic appearance on Oprah. Now Gibney had the hook he needed (and the head start on the competition) to craft an excellent Armstrong documentary, which is just what he did. Combining racing footage, press conferences, and interviews, Gibney traces the lies, the scandal, and eventually the truth behind The Armstrong Lie.
Alex Gibney didn't really have much of a narrative in 2009. Sure, it was nice that Armstrong came back to compete in the Tour de France, but being away for a few years wasn't much of a basis for a "comeback" narrative, nor did Armstrong's third-place finish leave the story with a triumphant note. The case is entirely different in 2013, and Gibney wisely choose to tell a good chunk of the Armstrong story. Whereas some filmmakers might be tempted to focus on the scandal, Gibney instead gives us an overview of Armstrong's career in addition to the scandals.
On the one hand, this humanizes Armstrong, making him more sympathetic. I don't care how much blood he was using to dope or how many performance-enhancing drugs he was taking, seven consecutive Tour de France wins is impressive. Gibney doesn't shy away from this material. He also doesn't shy away from doping in the sport of cycling. He makes it very clear that Armstrong is not some lonely sinner but part of a larger structure that has finish-line chasing cyclists on one side and regulatory agencies playing doping whack-a-mole on the other.
On the other hand, though, Gibney gives Armstrong enough rope to hang himself. We see the constant denials, the open-faced pleas for understanding, and each is a tiny nail in the coffin of Armstrong's credibility. Though we don't see every transgression, we are certainly privy to a number of instances where Armstrong used his fame, popularity, and wealth to ensure that he didn't suffer the same taint as other cyclists (even those on his own team). Though some might wish Armstrong to beat his breast and rend his clothing in penance, he seems to posses relative equanimity about the whole affair. All this balances out, making The Armstrong Lie as much about cycling, doping, and media, as it is about the horrendous cover-up that its protagonist waged for years.
Luckily, The Armstrong Lie (Blu-ray) gets the treatment it deserves. The film's 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer handles the numerous video sources with ease. Some of it looks better than others, but overall the detail is strong, colors are appropriately saturated, and black levels stay deep. Though not visually stunning in the way that a non-documentary could film, The Armstrong Lie's transfer is faithful to the source material. The film's DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is always clean and clear, the film's songs sound good, and there are even some directional effects during certain scenes. Overall it's impressive, especially for a documentary that has to utilize location sound.
Gibney's commentary makes the whole film worth sitting through again, as he takes the listener through the footage carefully. He identifies what was shot when and the story behind the production, including securing interviews. Next up is a Q&A featuring Gibney along with a group that includes author Bill Strickland and Jonathan Vaughters, one of Armstrong's former teammates. If you didn't get enough in the film, we also get 45 minutes of deleted scenes, including some dramatic moments of Armstrong's injury. Finally, the film's trailer is included on the disc. This set also includes an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's something a bit odd about The Armstrong Lie. Unlike a number of Gibney's other films, The Armstrong Lie is essentially a complete story. In the case of Enron, Kenneth Lay died before he could really come to justice, and with We Steal Secrets there's a similar feeling of a story that hasn't quite finished yet. Another irregularity is the clear-cut nature of Armstrong's case. Again, in Enron, Lay claimed to be not guilty, while Julian Assange is either an information terrorist or freedom fighter. Armstrong, however, is clearly guilty, and has clearly laid out his lying and his reasons. I don't want to suggest that The Armstrong Lie goes too far, but at two hours it can feel like overkill. We know before the first frame that Armstrong is guilty, and so the careful way that Gibney attends to the details can feel excessive. Chopping out 10 minutes would have helped the picture, probably.
The Armstrong Lie is a twofold film. It has an amazing story to tell about a driven athlete (namely Lance Armstrong), but it also tells a story of media, intrigue, sports, and doping. The fascinating character study combined with a peek at the insane world of elite cycling makes this one of 2013's strongest documentaries. Combine that with a solid Blu-ray release, and you've got a flick that fans of documentary, cycling, or scandal should at least give a rental.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.