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The Armstrong Lie

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Alex Gibney
Cert tbc, 122 mins

This documentary opens with now disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong admitting to camera that he 'didn't live a lot of lies. But I lived one big one.' He's talking to Gibney's camera on January 14, 2013, the day of his watershed TV interview with Oprah in which Armstrong finally admitted, after years of public denial, that he did in fact use banned, performance-enhancing drugs.

To briefly cover the history, Armstrong was born in 1971 and by the mid-1990s was a Tour DuPont winner (the US's most important race) and the world's topranked cyclist. In 1996, he announced he had advanced testicular cancer, underwent surgery and chemo, survived and in 1997 set up The Lance Armstrong Foundation (later The Livestrong Foundation) to advocate cancer research and support cancer survivors to the tune of over $300m. He subsequently won the Tour de France seven times (1999-2005) before being implicated in French sports paper L'Equipe's article 'Le Mensonge Armstrong' (The Armstrong Lie) for taking banned substance EPO in 1999 before his first win. Further allegations followed, again and again Armstrong denied them, repeatedly testing negative for banned substances while contemporaries tested positive. In a corrupt sport, Armstrong appeared clean. But many felt this appearance too good to be true. A consummate storyteller determined to add a further chapter to the tale of his life, Armstrong announced his comeback for the 2009 Tour de France.

At this point Gibney, hitherto the director of 2006's Oscar-nominated, corporate corruption documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, was invited to make a film about Armstrong's comeback. He shot footage in and around the 2009 Tour de France, with all the access he could want. After a year of editing, he had an upbeat film. But then, doping allegations about Armstrong became so strong that Gibney shelved the film. In retrospect, the project as originally conceived seems out of kilter with such later Gibney documentaries as Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) and We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks (2013). Gibney went back, shot more interview material with Armstrong and others in an attempt to examine, why did the man stage a comeback which would ultimately prove his undoing? What drove him? The documentary became darker.

Amazing 2009 Tour de France footage of Armstrong is interspersed with reports of his various alleged doping misdemeanours and his clever strategies for not getting caught. More fascinating than such detail, however, is Armstrong himself, pushing further and further in pursuit of excellence, 'crushing and bullying' people in his path who won't play the way he wants, blessed with the ability to look the camera/the audience in the eye and convincingly affirm a truth ... which turns out to be a falsehood. A truth that, as Gibney points out, Armstrong's fans and admirers wanted to hear. Even if it was not actually true.

In the end, this is a film about not cycling, not even Lance Armstrong, but something else. What is it that motivates people to do what they do, what part does honesty or dishonesty play, and how exactly does the human being's extraordinary capacity for self-deception take effect?

Gibney, making the original film, was himself one of the many people to whom Lance Armstrong lied. The director talks on the soundtrack about how, while he was making the comeback film as originally conceived, others wondered if he had gone soft. In a way, it's a sad state of affairs when a positive, life-affirming story is turned on its head to be revealed as a sham. Yet, Gibney's reworked film turns out a fascinating incursion into the nature of integrity, truth and self-deception. A genuinely extraordinary revelation.