Funny story: the first ten times I heard the name of the documentary I thought it was about those "the moon landing was faked" people. Not so! It's all about the career of Lance, with specific focus on his 2009 return to the Tour de France and the downfall after a slew of doping allegations and revelations that followed closely on the heels of his 3rd place finish that year. There are shades of tragedy there — the widely-loved hero whose past-prime hubris led to his complete undoing. Several people interviewed in the documentary, including Lance himself, speculate that if he hadn't tried to make a return, his collapse would never have happened. But for Alex Gibney, who was following Lance in 2009 to document his comeback, the "pride goeth before the fall" thing was an opportunity to document the disintegration of Armstrong's mythology.
A disclaimer: I spend what is probably a higher-than-average amount of time in the world of bicycles. Road races aren't my jam, though I know racers. Still — you hang out around bikes enough, Lance is going to come up in conversation. I came in knowing what I thought, curious if the documentary would somehow sway my opinion a slightly different direction. It didn't do that, but it did manage to surprise me with its unusual look into the charisma behind Armstrong's lie, and the abject ferocity with which he protected it.
Gibney makes a smart storytelling decision from the first — juxtaposing footage of Armstrong in the early and mid-00s fiercely decrying his accusers ("How dare you?" his face always seems to ask) with footage of him copping to his untruths, including in front of Oprah. It's immensely unsettling when the movie flips between the two — his anger and intense aura of righteousness, which probably helped protect him from scrutiny from the general public (well, that and his history of testing clean — more on that later) becomes sinister and strange when you look back knowing the truth. Gibney also conducted extensive interviews with former friends and teammates. Sometimes they speak with surprising bluntness and honesty — a story about how the Postal Service team faked a bus breakdown in the middle of the Tour so they could jump in the bus and take blood bags — quite literally in the middle of the race-viewing public and media. Might as well do it then, we were going to do it later anyway, says a former teammate. Sometimes they are more elusive, as they try to avoid coming down on, say, a doctor who helped them get away with doping.
Gibney is also seemingly fascinated by Armstrong's sense of narrative — he finishes a stage of the race and in the hotel afterwards is already spinning a narrative about his performance and its relationship to his history, his family, his foundation. He's an incredibly charismatic storyteller, and to listen to him, to watch his old race footage and hear him describe it — even in this context — is to be drawn in. The movie effectively reminds us why all of us bought the improbable myth of the clean man in the dirty sport for so long: the man can sell. Maybe the primary story in the documentary is Armstrong's lie, the secondary (more fascinating?) story, how people around him have reacted to both the lie itself and the underlying truth. Even Gibney admits he was "just a fan" the day Lance made an improbable showing at the final mountain stage, the second-to-last day of the tour.
This documentary doesn't tell you anything new about why Lance lied — how could it? We've always known why he lied. In a sport where everyone was doping — or perceived to be doping, at least — he was able to leverage his power to keep his team protected. His teammates testified against him, but there are no heroes in this story, if the drugs are what you're worried about. At one point, a former teammate shakes his head at another former teammate who'd testified earliest — how could he testify against Lance, he asks, since he was the one who taught me how to dope? "The Armstrong lie" was both pragmatic and lucrative, in this context — and it runs so much deeper than Lance, despite the perception of Lance as ringleader. "Nobody made me dope, I just knew I had to," says one former teammate, and I at least halfway believe him.
There's another narrative that Gibney raises but doesn't really explore, which is ultimately what I found dissatisfying in the documentary: the role of "the powers that be" in the whole scandal. The movie picks up a few threads that a different movie would have followed: for example, intimations that when a rider came back dirty on a test, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport's governing body) essentially gave teams the opportunity to "find a reason." There is an air of complicity that shouldn't surprise anyone who's read a piece or four about the sport. When Lance comes up around my friends, shrugs sometimes follow, though there's no love lost. "Mostly he's just a rider, in the end." Plenty of cyclists may hate what Lance pushed and what he stands for (and the brutality with which he covered up the truth — including destruction of careers), but to me the lie itself is far less interesting than the length of time it went on, despite the number of people who were in on it. This can't be understood as a problem with a single rider, no matter how famous, nor a single team. This movie will give you a personal look inside the mechanics of a great, complex untruth — and also make you wish for a second film that digs deep into why and how it became possible.