We're living in a great time for sports documentary filmmaking. ESPN's 30 For 30 series has featured a number of fantastic films by notable filmmakers that have played at such film festivals as Sundance and Toronto. Just two years ago, Undefeated, a football doc, won the Best Documentary Oscar. And 2010 racing doc Senna has topped lists for best documentary of all time.
One of the most notable documentarians today, Oscar winner Alex Gibney, is no stranger to this trend. His 2011 baseball doc Catching Hell was distributed by ESPN as part of their 30 For 30 follow-up series "ESPN Films Presents." Now Gibney is back with a remarkable documentary that focuses on one of the darker corners of the world of sports. In The Armstrong Lie, Alex Gibney takes us deep inside the world of cycling to look at just how endemic doping has been in the sport -- and why Lance Armstrong faced such damning punishment for his involvement in the practice.
Having worn the yellow jersey into Paris and thus winning the Tour de France on a record-breaking seven occasions, Lance Armstrong was a titan in the sport of professional cycling. He was also plagued by constant allegations of doping, a practice that led to numerous other cyclists being stripped of their titles. But while cyclist after cyclist admitted to cheating and took their slaps on the wrists, Armstrong maintained he was completely clean, seemingly spending as much time denying allegations as he spent peddling his bike. But then in 2012, it all came crashing down. Facing insurmountable testimony from his former teammates, the already retired Armstrong caved to the pressure and admitted it had all been lies. He had, in fact, been doping all along.
For his transgressions, Armstrong received a lifetime ban from the US Anti-Doping Agency. This meant that not only could he never compete in professional cycling again, he was banned from even running in competitive events like marathons and triathlons. Was the punishment justifiable for the crime of doping after so many other cyclists were just banned for a year or two? Or was Armstrong, perhaps, punished for his high profile lies, and not so much for the doping crimes he committed?
This is the starting point for cycling fans coming to The Armstrong Lie, but it started much earlier for Gibney. The documentary originally began in 2009 as a project to document Armstrong's return to cycling after retiring from the sport in 2005. Gibney wanted to know if an undoubtedly super man like the cancer-surviving Armstrong could return to peak form in a grueling sport like cycling at the age of 37. It was an uncommon project for the usually hard-hitting Gibney who faced accusations of filming a PR puff piece for Armstrong. Had it all gone as planned, perhaps it would have been. As it happens, Gibney was in the wrong place at exactly the right time.
With incredible access to Armstrong both before and after his admission of guilt, Gibney's doc explores the psychology of a man going through an exceptional amount of denial, guilt, and confusion. As expected, Gibney does a stellar job of both relating the history and asking the question, "why?" But Gibney doesn't stop there. Seemingly fascinated by his own role in the debacle, Gibney explores the 'cult of Lance' and whether or not he was swept up by the personality just as much as the public.
So many great sports documentaries provide background and behind-the-scenes for fans of the sport or event. Only the truly exceptional offer an extra level of interest for people who know nothing about the subject or perhaps don't even like the sport. This is absolutely the case with The Armstrong Lie, a documentary that not only offers an expert exploration of a fascinating story, but also delves into the multi-layered psychological elements of fame, denial, and punishment. With Gibney's latest contribution, the era of great sports documentary filmmaking rolls on.
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013. The film opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin. Visit the official site for more information.