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'The Armstrong Lie' reveals nothing new about Lance Armstrong

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney takes on disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong with "The Armstrong Lie," but has very little to say about him.

Lance Armstrong gets Alex Gibneyed in "The Armstrong Lie." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics Lance Armstrong gets Alex Gibney-ed in "The Armstrong Lie."
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

‘The Armstrong Lie’
Director: Alex Gibney
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Since 2010, director Alex Gibney has averaged two or three feature-length documentaries a year. That’s an incredible number for any filmmaker, and the rush shows. His films tackle hot button issues — Enron, torture, Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer, WikiLeaks and more — but in a basic, shallow fashion that betrays a lack of deeper introspection. He’s not an opportunist, per se, merely making films that will draw attention. But what his films reveal is hardly ever surprising, in any interpretation of the word.

It was a given that Gibney would take on Lance Armstrong, whose belated confession to doping during the majority of his illustrious cycling career finally destroyed his reputation in January. Gibney originally meant to make his film in 2009, under considerably different circumstances: It was to be a portrait of his comeback, an attempt to prove that he wasn’t a doper and could still, even at nearly 40, be a commanding racer who deserved his seven Tour de France wins. That proved hubristic, as it wound up only unleashing more allegations, these much more difficult to deny.

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Gibney jumps back and forth between then and now, with an open yet still cagey Armstrong bitterly admitting the truth. The big draw of the film is that it includes Armstrong talking in a more frank (or at least more sweary) way than he did when he famously sat down with Oprah Winfrey — but so what? He’s not particularly reflective. Neither is Gibney. Mostly the filmmaker summarizes what has already been heavily summarized, going through his career as a young star who turned an appreciated sport into a phenomenon (read: Americans suddenly cared too), becoming its own new, marketable star.

Gibney touches on how the rise of the sport demanded such superhuman strength that not only was Armstrong taking power boosting substances, but so was everyone else. This could be an interesting avenue: that we demand of our athletes that which they could never give us naturally, then castigate them when they seek alternative means. It’s good that Gibney doesn’t turn Armstrong into a martyr, but that’s mostly because he doesn’t have anything to say. He sticks to a mere narrative, and even includes himself (luckily only on the narration track) for no productive reason. Like its subject it doesn’t appear to have the ability to dig deeper, and is as such fairly useless.

 
 
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