Alex Gibney is one of the most well regarded documentary filmmakers of his generation. Winner of an Oscar in 2007 for Taxi to the Dark Side, his investigative films have chronicled not only the use of torture by American soldiers but also widespread corporate fraud in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The source of these films’ strength and power is simple: Context. At his best, Gibney is able to locate a single human story and position it at the heart of a broader social phenomenon. The Armstrong Lie is an attempt to apply these methods to the sport of cycling but while Gibney certainly does address the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs in that particular sport, he struggles to see past the human story of Lance Armstrong to the broader social phenomenon that allowed him to hide in plain sight for so long.
In 1992, a 21-year old Lance Armstrong began his career as a professional cyclist. An amateur triathlete from the age of 16, Armstrong excelled at one-day events and became World Cycling Champion in 1993. In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer and was placed on a series of experimental treatments that allowed him to return to professional cycling in 1998. In 1999, Armstrong entered the Tour de France and unexpectedly swept to victory thereby completing one of the most remarkable and romantic comebacks in sporting history. The problem with this comeback is that it relied less upon Armstrong’s innate athletic talent than it did upon his ability to manage a highly elaborate doping ring that relied not only upon cutting edge science but also a level of administrative skill that was, at that point, entirely absent from a sport already filled with drugs cheats.
Despite numerous allegations that Armstrong was just as much of a cheat as previous Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, Armstrong remained in the limelight and went on to win seven successive Tours, a level of success that made him not only a hero to millions of people but also a very rich man. Armstrong’s domination of world cycling continued until his retirement in 2005 but it was not until his unnecessary return to the sport in 2009 that people began to come forward and the scope of Armstrong’s cheating became public knowledge.
The problem with this film is that Armstrong’s story is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film. At the end of the day, Armstrong was an ambitious and aggressive man who did everything in his power to win, including cheat. His history of testicular cancer along with his deprived childhood may well account for his will to victory but anyone who looks at the amount of money he made and the level of fame he reached should be able to work out why he cheated and why he continued lying about it until he was eventually caught. Like most sportsmen, Armstrong does not appear to be imbued with a profound inner life and so any attempt to tell his personal story will inevitably come across as being rather dull and predictable, which is unfortunate as Gibney hints at a far more interesting story that is struggling to escape from Armstrong’s shadow.
Gibney uses a wonderful piece of archive footage in which a bunch of 1960s cyclists reach the top of a massive hill and run into a café, clearing the shelves of any booze they can carry before running back to their bikes and resuming the race. Charming in much the same way as old pictures of footballers smoking, this footage actually shows the extent to which cycling has always had something of a laidback attitude to the use of performance enhancing drugs: Those cyclists weren’t just getting drunk, they were using alcohol as a means of medicating the muscular pain they were experiencing as a result of riding their bikes up the side of a mountain. While cyclists may no longer get drunk during the race, the urge to reach for anything that might give them and edge over their opposition never left the sport, it just went underground. By the 1990s, the use of performance enhancing drugs was so widespread and professionalised that all the major tours hinged on a sort of biochemical arms race in which victory went to the team that was able to inject the most drugs into its cyclists without getting caught. This is the culture in which Armstrong rose to prominence.
What makes Armstrong an interesting figure is not whether he cheated and why but how he came to dominate a sporting culture in which cheating was already endemic. The frustrating thing about The Armstrong Lie is that while the film does touch on this question by alluding to both Armstrong’s skills as a storyteller and his ability to dominate the people around him, Gibney refuses to pull these strands together and instead devotes the end of the film to an entirely useless (though admittedly pretty) meditation on whether or not Armstrong cheated during his return to the Tour in 2009.
The question of how a documentarian who exposed the truth about both the Iraq War and the collapse of Enron failed to come to grips with Lance Armstrong actually tells us quite a bit about how Armstrong remained undetected for so long. The film is quite right to assert that Armstrong is a skilled storyteller but what makes him a great storyteller is his ability to place himself at the heart of every narrative and thereby obscure the real facts of the story. Gibney failed to capture the truth about Lance Armstrong because, like countless reporters before him, he simply could not see past Armstrong as an individual to the culture he dominated. The reason Armstrong was allowed to get away with cheating for so long was that having Armstrong around to talk about testicular cancer and play the victim when accused of cheating allowed the real culture of cycling to remain hidden. The root of Armstrong’s power as a storyteller lies in his capacity to make everything about him and this is precisely the trap that Gibney has fallen into. Though fascinating in its own way, this weakness means that The Armstrong Lie is a much less effective film than either Taxi to the Dark Side or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and an ineffective documentary that lasts over two hours only compounds frustration with boredom.